JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. -- No. 18 Carson-Newman (10-2) opened the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs against a familiar foe Saturday afternoon at Burke-Tarr Stadium. The Eagles jumped out to a 21-0 lead before stiff-arming No. 25 Newberry (9-3) for a 37-27 first-round win.
The matchup was second time the two teams had tangled in three weeks. In the first meeting, everything that could go wrong for the Wolves did and Carson-Newman took advantage, racing out to a 35-0 lead before going on to a 52-31 victory. The Wolves came into the game determined to fare better the second time around and they did just that.
Corey Washington had 267 all-purpose yards, including two long kick returns for touchdowns but the Eagles offense rolled up 544 total yards. With the win, the fourth-seeded Eagles registered their first 10-win season since 2009, and advance to the second round next week where they will face fellow SAC member and top-seeded Lenoir-Rhyne.
"I'm very excited that these guys showed character and maturity and didn't let the circumstances dictate how we responded," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "There were several instances where we could have responded in a negative way if we had lesser character. We look forward to playing another week."
The high-powered Eagles' offense was led by quarterback De'Andre Thomas, who threw for 205 yards on 9-of-19 passing with a touchdown.
He also rushed for three scores on 24 carries and 85 yards. With 19 touchdowns this season, Thomas is within three of the single-season record. He's tied for the fifth-most rushing scores in a single year with Tyrone Westmoreland (1997).
Brandon Baker ran the ball 17 times for 127 times and a score to pace the C-N ground game.
"We've struggled at times this year to be a shutdown defense," Sparks said. "But they were relentless in getting pressure on the quarterback. We made some really big plays on that side of the football."
Newberry was paced by Raleigh Yeldell's 89 rushing yards and a touchdown and 130 passing yards with a score. Washington had 89 receiving yards but did his damage on kick returns where he had 177 yards and two long scores. Arnez Gray and Jalen Hunter led the Wolves' defense with 13 tackles each. Dominique Walker added 10 tackles for Newberry.
It appeared the Eagles might once again build a huge early lead and run away from the Wolves as they scored three touchdowns to go up 21-0. Thomas capped a 92-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run for the first points of the contest. Thomas found TraShaun Ward for a 35-yard scoring play and Thomas scored again, this time from 2 yards out early in the second frame to put the Eagles up 21-0.
But then Washington went to work for the Wolves as he took a kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown.
"Those were special teams breakdowns," Sparks said. "We didn't kick the ball in the right place, and it looked like we were wearing Velcro out there when we we're getting blocking. But it was beautiful how the kids responded from all that."
Washington was on the receiving end of a 60-yard pass to cut the lead to 21-14.
Curt Duncan produced the halftime score when he was true on a 29-yard field goal with 41 seconds remaining. The three-pointer gives Duncan the single-season record for made field goals at C-N with 15.
The Eagles' special teams struggled as they had a field goal blocked and a high snap on an extra point in addition to Washington's long runs. After Thomas had punched one in from 1 yard out, the snap on the extra point was high and Duncan was forced to fall on it as the Eagles led 30-14.
Yeldell scored on a 20-yard run but the Wolves were haunted by their own special teams miscue as Yeldell tried to run in the 2-point conversion but was stopped on a high snap. Baker had a 13-yard scoring play to give the Eagles some breathing room, but on the ensuing kickoff, it was Washington to the rescue once again as he blitzed through the Eagles defenders for a 95-yard touchdown to make it 37-27. Carson-Newman has never allowed two kickoff returns for scores in a single game under Sparks. The TD returns are the first C-N has allowed since 2009.
Washington had a chance at another long return as the Eagles were forced to punt but he muffed Duncan's punt and Alex Taylor pounced on the loose ball for Carson-Newman. The Eagles were able to pick up the necessary first downs to run out the clock.