Benedict football closes out season in loss to Wingate after first playoff appearance

Like they have at every game this season, Benedict players and coaches lined up near the band after the final buzzer sounded.

Purple-and-yellow-clad Benedict fans rose to their feet and saluted the Tigers on their historic season — one that ended a little earlier than most wanted.

Shaw Crocker threw three touchdown passes and Wingate used a strong defensive performance to defeat Benedict, 23-6 in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs on Saturday at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium.

Wingate will play the Delta State/West Florida winner in the third round next week. It is the first time the Bulldogs have advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

The Tigers’ season ends at 11-1, but was filled with a lot of firsts including:

Benedict’s 11 wins are the most in a season in school history.

It was the first playoff game the program had played in.

The Tigers were nationally ranked in the American Football Coaches Poll for the first time, and finished the regular season at No. 7.

“I’m proud of this football team,” Benedict coach Chennis Berry said. “We fought all year. We just fell a little short today. Ultimately at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. We thought we had a good plan and executed in some form or fashion.”

Berry said he will use Saturday’s loss as a lesson, and something to build the program in the future.

“Now, we know what it takes,” he said. “That will motivate us in the weight room, in our studies, the summer and to continue to get one percent better. I love this football team and we have something special.”

During his postgame comments, Berry talked about his team’s missed chances.

Two of the opportunities came in the first half, when the Bulldogs picked off quarterback Eric Phoenix twice inside the Wingate 20-yard line, including once in the end zone.

Another came in the second half when the Tigers trailed, 16-6, but had all the momentum. Phoenix hit Elijah Watson on a 9-yard pass with 2:29 left in the third quarter to cut it to 16-6.

On Wingate’s next possession, former Irmo standout Ja’Voni Melador picked off Crocker and returned to the Bulldogs’ 35-yard line.

The Tigers went for it on fourth-and-one on the 26 but running back Deondra Duehart was stuffed by Justin Rhodes to end the threat.

Benedict had converted on 52 percent of its fourth downs on the season.

“That is the call we have been running all year and converting,” Berry said. “That is what we hung our hat on. And again, it comes down to missed opportunities…. If we score there, we are right in the ball game.”

The play by the Wingate defense was typical of what it had been used to all season. The Bulldogs came into the game with one of the best defenses in Division II. Wingate was in the top three in sacks per game and third in points allowed and led the nation, allowing just 215.2 yards per game.

Benedict gained 332 yards, but was sacked seven times. The Tigers were held to 29 yards rushing.

“I don’t have any words for how our defense is playing,’ Wingate coach Joe Reich said. “They are doing a phenomenal job, coming up with play after play. I feel we are hitting our stride.”

After the Wingate stop, the Bulldogs put the game away when Crocker, a former Palmetto High quarterback, scrambled to his left and found Kamal Desor for a 21-yard touchdown with 8:12 left.

Crocker was 14-of-29 for 232 yards.

“He made two unbelievably huge plays for us to salt the game away,” Reich said of Crocker. “That is what he brings. He brings great leadership and great playmaking ability.

Alexander Wilson led Wingate with 104 yards rushing.

Phoenix finished with 303 yards passing. Tayven Grice led the Tigers with five catches for 91 yards.