McKenzie, Tenn. -Consolation and congratulations were fielded by Bethel University defensive lineman Joey Dienye as he sat on a sideline bleacher with a towel over his head moments after the Wildcats lost to Belhaven 55-45 in the season finale on Saturday at Bethel. It became a crying towel.
Teammates Kerry Sellers, Jensen Youngblood, Terrance Thomas and Brandon West took turns trying to console Dienye who was in tears. "Everything finally hit me. This was the last time I would be wearing the Purple and Gold," said Dienye, one of 16 seniors recognized before the Mid-South Conference West Division game.
Dienye played the game knowing he could set a school record for sacks. He entered with 13.0, a half-sack behind his defensive line coach Cliff Barna, who played from 2003-2007. Dienye was credited with two one half-sacks Saturday. "It's a big relief," he said. "It took weeks to get it. It had to come."
Before the game Barna was rooting it on. "It would make me feel great passing that down from coach to player," he said. After mission accomplished Barna said, "I feel great. He is the best player I've coached. He is the most respectful, most coachable and great all-around young man on and more importantly off the field."
On the field if the Wildcats had taken care of the ball better, not been gassed by long plays and played more consistently, Dienye said the outcome may have been different. Bethel lost two fumbles and had three interceptions. Belhaven had 579 yards total offense (267 yards rushing, 312 passing) to the Wildcats' 360 yards (247 rushing, 113 passing).
The Blazers' Rashad Wynes had the game's longest run, 74 yards in the third quarter that led to a touchdown. On the first play from scrimmage Wynes, who rushed for 153 yards on 17 carries, ran 40 yards to the Bethel 20-yard line. Quarterback Ian McGinnis threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Justin Kenyon five plays later and after 1:37 had been played, Belhaven led 7-0.
McGinnis, who finished with 312 yards while completing 20 of 38 passes, threw his longest pass of the game, a 39-yarder on Belhaven's second possession to Patrick Wilson. That paved the way for McGinnis' 1-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead. A 30-yard pass from McGinnis to Kenyon in the second quarter set up McGinnis' 27-yard touchdown pass to Wilson and a 28-21 Blazers' lead.
What a difference a year makes said Belhaven coach Joseph Thrasher. Last year both teams were playing for the conference championship. Bethel won 21-17. This season both teams entered with 2-8 records and 0-4 league records.
It was the most points each team has scored in a game this year. "It was a case of who was going to take care of the ball last," said Thrasher, who is in his fifth season as Blazers head coach and is associate pastor of North Ridge Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
In the fourth quarter it seemed neither team wanted to take care of the ball. The Wildcats had pulled to within 45-42 on a 1-yard keeper by quarterback Will Nicks and Robby Phillips' PAT with 11:15 left. Phillips then recovered his onside kick-off at the Bethel 45. On the first play Bethel running back Quincy Walden fumbled and Belhaven's Glenn Salisbury recovered at the Bethel 47. Then Stoney Burns intercepted McGinnis at the Bethel 2- yard line and returned it to the 9. Bethel's Travis Smith then fumbled which Kenneth Niles recovered at the Bethel 4-yard line. Wynes scored his first touchdown of the game on a 3-yard run and Belhaven took a 52-42 lead with 9:42 left. Belhaven kicker Alonso Acosta, playing on a torn medial collateral ligament, kicked seven PATs and two field goals. "I was proud of him," said Thrasher.
Gaining their first win over Bethel since 2009, the Blazers evened the series at 7-7.
What stifled the Wildcats said Bethel coach Chris Elliott was pulling to within three, 45-42, after recovering the onside kick. "We had the opportunity to get momentum in our direction," said Elliott. The interception brought a second chance after the fumble. "That was our chance to take over the game and we didn't take advantage of it.
"We would make plays but then made too many mistakes. We got down 14-0 and battled back to tie. There were a lot of positives today. They are not going to quit. That has been the case all season. It is not surprising that it did not change today. They played hard."
Elliott bragged on the play of Nicks, Smith, Walden and the defensive line which "did a good job of chasing the quarterback (McGinnis) around all day. The secondary made good plays. There was not anybody that didn't play well," he said.
Nicks, who got a redshirt when he played at Arkansas State under current Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, completed 8 of 25 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed a game-high 51-yard, touchdown pass to Jahron Reynolds that tied the game at 28 with 14:22 left in the third quarter. Reynolds led receivers with 56 yards on three receptions.
Two weeks ago Nicks was on the practice squad. Two days before the Cumberland game he was told that he would be the starting quarterback. "I didn't have time to think much about it. I had to prepare for Cumberland," said Nicks, who moved to Little Rock before his ninth grade year. He had played middle school football at University School of Jackson. His brother Wes Nicks played at Lambuth from 2006-08.
"I love playing the game. It's like going out to play with a bunch of brothers. Playing with the seniors, you humble yourself. It's not about yourself. You play as a unit," he said. "All of us had the intensity. I wish I had taken care of the ball a lit bit better. I'd clean up some of my throws. They are a good team but if we played them 10 times, we would nine of them."
Finishing his Bethel career, Smith gained 120 yards on 22 carries. He rushed for 1,150 yards this season, the eighth straight year a Bethel player has topped 1,000 yards. With 8:32 left in the fourth quarter, it seemed Smith carried the city of McKenzie on a 21-yard run to the Belhaven 1 yard line. Smith bulldozed his way toward the end zone with Blazers attached. However, the Wildcats couldn't score due to a penalty and stiffened Blazer defense and Phillips kicked a 19-yard field goal to cut the Belhaven lead to 52-45.
Smith (5-8. 227 pounds) reminds Phillips of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who was nicknamed The Bus. He rushed for 13, 662 yards, sixth most in the NFL. "He's been the workhorse all year. I compare him to Jerome Bettis. Give him the ball and he is someone who wears the defense down," said Phillips.
"We fight through," said Smith. "We struggled in the first half and then we switched up some plays that made it better for me," said Smith, who had a reception for 15 yards and 110 yards rushing in the second half after only 10 in the first half.
Walden, a 5-5 freshman wide receiver, and Reynolds teamed for 159 return yards with Reynolds gaining 84 on three returns and Walden four on 75 yards. Walden scored two touchdowns, averaged 16.8 yards per carry while gaining 101 yards on six and had a 39-yard run. He scored the Wildcats' first touchdown, a 33-yard run with 3:20 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats started the drive on the Belhaven 35-yard line when Anthony Debonis forced a fumble and Dominick Glenn recovered.
Walden's second touchdown, a 27-yard run, tied the game at 14. Reynolds had a 16-yard punt return.
Defensively Bethel was sparked by Tyler Murray who had 13 tackles, including nine solos. Brenton Davis had 11, including 1.5 sacks while Damani Taylor had 10 tackles and a sack. Stoney Burns and Dienye each had five tackles. Belhaven's Alonzo Peavy had a team-high nine tackles. Darrius Wren and Laderrion Johnson each had a sack for Belhaven.
An area where the Wildcats excelled was its kicking game. Robbie Phillips, a junior, averaged 49.8 yards on four punts that totaled 199 yards. He kicked a 56-yard punt in the third quarter. He connected on six PATS and made the only field goal he attempted.
Offensively, Belhaven ran 87 plays to the Wildcats' 63. McGinnis, a senior, threw for three touchdowns and was intercepted twice.
He has rebounded from a shoulder injury on his throwing arm his sophomore season. He had a bulging disc in his back during the 2011 season. He didn't play for Belhaven until spring of this year. He had worked as an intern in a California church and in an orphanage in Mexico. He kept in shape while playing soccer.
McGinnis, who is from Santa Cruz, Calif., and had football stints at Cabrillo Community College and Malone, Ohio, University, started the second game of this season at quarterback. "I didn't play well. I was trying to be the perfect quarterback," he said. He has also played wide receiver, on special teams and defensive back. "I got the (quarterback) job by default. I am grateful for the opportunity," said McGinnis, who credited God for it.
"It is definitely a God-thing," said Thrasher, thankful that McGinnis ended up at Belhaven. "It felt good to finish the year with a victory. We are now on a one-game winning streak."
Before the streak began, the Blazers had to break the ties that Bethel battled to get. In Bethel's second touchdown drive, Wicks had a 23-yard run before Walden scored with 14:51 left in the second quarter.
Belhaven (3-8) used a 63-yard, 10-play drive to take a 21-14 lead. McGinnis ran 16 yards for a touchdown with 10:53. In their 61-yard, 6-play drive that took 2:42 and featured Walden's 39-yard scamper, the Wildcats tied the game, 21-21, when Nicks passed to Cole Delano for a 14-yard touchdown with 2:39 left in the second quarter.
"It's the best feeling. It feels good to get the first one of the season," said Delano, who said the pass play was called "pop." "Delano wanted the TD to "demoralize" Belhaven's defense before halftime."We want to get that momentum going."
However, Belhaven went 63 yards in five plays. McGinnis threw a 30-yard pass to Kenyon and the 27-yard touchdown pass to Wilson, who played despite an injured ankle and broken wrist. "That is not something you see too often," said McGinnis of Wilson. Wilson finished with 111 yards receiving, a game-high, on five catches. Belhaven led 28-21 at halftime.
Reynolds lived up to his nickname "Quick" when he and Nicks teamed for the 51-yard touchdown pass on Bethel's first possession of the second half. Phillips tied it at 28. "It feels good," said Reynolds after the touchdown. "The play took time to set up. I thank the O-line. They did an excellent job to do a deep pass. The O-line was able to protect long and they did it."
It was Reynolds' third touchdown of the season. He runs a 4.3 40.
Reynolds said that Wicks' pass was "on the money. He hasn't played that many games. He has caught on fast. We have had a lot of quarterbacks due to injuries."
Immediately Belhaven took a 35-28 lead when McGinnis scored on a 1-yard run. Wynes' 74-yard run had put the Blazers on the Bethel 1. Walden then returned the kickoff 60 yards to the Belhaven 32 but the costliest penalty of the game (Bethel only had four for 21 yards) nullified it. A block in the back returned the ball to the Bethel 23.
Belhaven's William Johnson then intercepted Nicks at the 28 and McGinnis threw a 28-yard pass to Lamiquell Roberts for a touchdown and a 42-28 lead with 11:12 left in the third quarter.
The teams traded interceptions on their next series. Brennan Dunklin intercepted Nicks at the Bethel 48 but McGinnis was intercepted by Jeremy Williams, who ran 53 yards for a touchdown and again Bethel was within a touchdown, 42-35.
"I was trying to help the team anyway I could," said Williams. It was his first interception for a touchdown.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Belhaven took a 10-point lead, 45-35, on Acosta's 40-yard field goal. But again Bethel rallied. Smith had four carries of 2, 21, 16 and 18 yards. Devin Raymer than ran 4 yards and Nicks threw a 10-yard pass to Delano that put the Wildcats at the Bethel 1. Nicks scored and whittled the lead to 45-42.
Wynes' 3-yard touchdown put the Blazers ahead 52-42 with 9:34 left before Bethel pulled within 52-45. Smith had five carries for 52 yards in the 8-play, 55-yard drive. Logan Diebold got to the 1 with 6:31 left. Phillips kicked a field goal on fourth down and 2.
With a fourth and 8 from their own 22, the Wildcats, after incomplete passes, were stopped. Acosta came in to kick a 37-yard field goal which he nailed but not before Sellers said, "Do you know what would be awesome? To block the kick and return it for a touchdown."
"Everything doesn't go your way," said Bethel offensive lineman Dedrick Brooks.
Williams said the Wildcats (2-9) were prepared. "We knew the game plan. We practice all week and for exactly what they did."
Said Taylor, "The defensive line and linebackers showed out today. We tried to send the seniors out on a good note."
Despite the struggles, Thrasher told his team afterwards he had never enjoyed coaching a group as much as he had this one. "I love you men," he said. "My hat's off to Bethel. I know they will bounce back next year."
Belhaven will return all its special team players in 2014. The Blazers played seven freshmen on defense and will lose three on offense." One senior they lose is Matt Hall, who at 6-10, 325, was an offensive lineman and had played at Ole Miss. Thrasher expects him to be a top 100 NFL draft choice.
Dienye also wants to be playing on Sundays next year. "It's one of my dreams. I keep pursuing."
Elliott said that he "hated to see" his seniors not get a victory. "They were great. They did everything we asked them to do since they have been here."
Said Brooks, "It was an honor to play with these guys."
Expecting a different outcome next season, Nicks said, "I know this sounds like a cliché but we've got something special."