VALDOSTA -- Carson-Newman was determined not to let recent history repeat itself Saturday in the first round of the Division II playoffs at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
After losing a 28-24 lead in the South Region final against Valdosta State last year in Valdosta, the Eagles kept their fourth-quarter composure in a 35-29 win one year later.
The victory marks Carson-Newman's first NCAA playoff road win in eight tries outside of Florence, Ala., the site of the Division II national championship.
Carson-Newman travels to Florence next week to face North Alabama, which defeated Southern Arkansas, 48-24, Saturday.
Trailing 35-22 in the fourth quarter, Valdosta State drove 80 yards in six plays, scoring on a 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andre Zellner. Will Rhody's point-after cut the Carson-Newman lead to 35-29 with 5:01 left in the game.
The Eagles (11-1) ran 4:14 off the clock on their next possession, but were stopped on fourth-and-inches at the Blazers' 45 with 47 seconds remaining.
"When it's fourth and that much and we don't make it, I about cut my wrist," Eagles' head coach Ken Sparks said. "This bunch of guys drives you nuts one minute and then you'll be hugging their necks the next minute."
Valdosta State quarterback Barrett Wilkes, who threw for 311 yards but was sacked six times, saw his fourth-down pass fall harmlessly incomplete on the Blazers' ensuing possession to end the Valdosta State season at 10-2.
The loss is Valdosta State's first at home in the opening round of the playoffs under head coach Chris Hatcher.
"It's a very disappointing season," Hatcher said. "I know there's a lot of teams that would like to be 10-2, but we expect to be national champions and we're disappointed that we couldn't finish it off."
Carson-Newman freshman running back Rayvon Howard bulled his way into the endzone from 13 yards out to give the Eagles a 35-22 lead after Angel Gonzalez's point after with 6:38 to play. Howard also converted a third-and-6 at the Valdosta State 29 earlier in the drive with a 16-yard run to set up the score.
"Once we get on a roll, we're gone," said Howard, who led ran for 68 of Carson-Newman's 300 rushing yards. "If we start running and keep running, I don't think anybody in the nation can stop us."
The Blazers scored 15 unanswered points to pull within three at 25-22 and threatened for more at the Eagles' 30 late in the third quarter until Wilkes, who had two interceptions in Eagles' territory, was intercepted by Carson-Newman defensive back Tiger Williams.
Williams' pick led to a 48-yard field goal from Gonzalez, extending the Eagle lead to 28-22 with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
"That's been the story of the year," Hatcher said. "We didn't have that knockout punch that we've had in past seasons."
The Blazers pulled within a score on Wilkes' 2-yard bootleg touchdown run at the 7:11 mark in the third quarter and then Valdosta State running back Tyran Robinson hit Zellner in the endzone on the two-point conversion play. Carson-Newman still led 25-22.
Carson-Newman scored on three of its four offensive possessions in the first quarter, taking a 22-7 lead on Leonard Weaver's second touchdown catch of the quarter, an 18-yard scoring strike from quarterback Shane Kelley. Eagles' wide receiver Mikkail Jenkins set up the score with a 77-yard kickoff return inside the Blazers' red zone.
"It could have been a blowout," Hatcher said. "At one point, I'm sitting there thinking we're going to get blown out of the stadium."
The Eagles' 22 first-quarter points were the most Valdosta State had given up in a quarter this season. The Blazers had only allowed over 21 points in an entire game once in the regular season.
Valdosta State scored its first points of the day on Robinson's 98-yard kickoff return with 1:51 left in the first quarter. Rhody's point after trimmed the Carson-Newman advantage to 15-7.
Carson-Newman scored the first 15 points of the game using an unorthodox passing game. Kelley threw for 203 yards, completing 9-of-19 passes.
"We watched last year's film [vs. Valdosta State] and they played the option very well, so we knew we knew we had to do more than just run the option," Kelley said.
Kelley's 1-yard scoring plunge gave Carson-Newman a 15-0 lead with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
Kelley connected with Weaver on the Eagles' first possession of the game for a 67-yard touchdown on third-and-13.
"That was a backbreaker," Valdosta State linebacker Jason Cost said. "We were mainly concentrating on the run and their passing just broke our back."
Weaver was also left uncovered on the extra point formation and scored the two-point conversion to give the Eagles an early 8-0 lead with 13:38 left in the first period.
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