The No. 20 West Florida football team (10-2) heads to
PENSACOLA — As thrilling as UWF’s shocking upset of No. 1 Valdosta State was this past Saturday, the time has already come for the game to be put away in the history books.
Anthony Johnson’s goal line dive to secure the 38-35 comeback win against the Blazers with six second to spare can’t be the Argos’ crescendo, can’t be the climax.
It has to be a stepping-stone, another lesson they learn on the way toward a second NCAA Division II National Championship appearance in three years, otherwise it might feel for not.
“We said at halftime, ‘Our character’s gonna win the game for us,’” UWF coach Pete Shinnick said on his weekly “The Coach Shinnick Show” appearance. “It was gonna take a team that believed in each other; it was gonna take a team that continued to encourage each other.
“We got down and we found a way.”
And UWF (10-2 overall) will likely have to find that way again, for the No. 20 Argos are set to play No. 6 Lenoir-Rhyne at 12 p.m. CST Saturday in Hickory, North Carolina, with a Final Four berth on the line. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN Pensacola 1330 AM/99.1 FM.
Given UWF is only in its fourth year with a program, it’s no surprise the Argos have never matched up with the Bears (13-0). However, it is surprising Shinnick hasn’t after spending seven seasons as the head coach at UNC Pembroke. Still, Shinnick said he has great respect for Lenoir-Rhyne’s program.
“Their head coach, Drew Cronic, has been there now; this is his second season,” Shinnick said. “He’s done a fantastic job in those two years turning that thing around, making it go.”
Specifically, Shinnick is impressed with the Bears’ discipline, Lenoir-Rhyne making use of a complex multiple offense and an aggressive defense.
“They run a unique offense,” he said. “Option style, Wing-T style, spread style — they kind of do everything. Lotta motions, lot of shifts. And then defensively they’re extremely sound … There’s a reason they’re 13-0, there’s a reason they’re one of the top teams in the country and why they won that conference.”
The Bears’ complex offense averages 42.31 points and 425.2 yards per game, much of it coming by way of tailback Ameen Stevens. The sophomore has totaled 828 yards rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns on the year, the latter mark tied for sixth in the country. Meanwhile, senior Jaquay Mitchell has proved a dynamic change-of-pace runner, racking up 652 yards and three scores on just 87 carries, good for a 7.3 yard-per-carry average.
Defensively, the Bears hold opponents to just 15.46 points, the seventh-best mark in the country, and 281.4 yards of offense per game thanks to the performance of defensive end Jaquan Artis. The senior leads his team with 79 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, the best mark of any player in Division II football.
“We need to know where (Artis) is,” Shinnick said. “He does a great job … He just has a great motor and really finds a way to get to the ball.”
That said, UWF has a pretty solid defense, too.
The unit features three all-conference selections — defensive lineman Ian Bush, nickelback Trent Archie and linebacker Kedrick Bradley — and ranks 14th in the country in terms of scoring defense, allowing just 16.9 points per game.
On the opposite side of the ball, Shinnick’s offense holds up its end of the bargain, averaging 35.75 points per game behind the Gulf South Conference’s Offensive Freshman of the Year, Austin Reed.
A redshirt freshman, Reed has thrown for 2,902 yards, 28 touchdowns and just eight interceptions with an extra six scores on the ground.
And, of course, he has plenty of help.
Senior offensive lineman Samuel Antoine and Joe Wintrick were named to the GSC’s first and second teams, respectively, giving their freshman gunslinger plenty of time to throw, while receivers Tate Lhetio and Quentin Randolph provided reliable targets, the pair also named to the GSC’s first and second teams, respectively.
Lehtio leads the team with 69 receptions for 72 yards per game, and Randolph has 744 yards with seven touchdowns.