Braves Fall To Arkansas Tech In NCAA Playoffs
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. - Senior quarterback Nick Graziano threw for a program-best 465 yards, including 351 in the first half alone, to help move 21st-ranked Arkansas Tech into the second round of the NCAA Playoffs with a 41-13 victory over visiting and 11th-ranked UNCP Saturday afternoon at Thone Stadium in northwest Arkansas.
The loss effectively snapped a six-game winning streak for the Braves (9-2) who became the youngest program (three years old) to ever secure a bid into the NCAA Division II Football Playoffs. Arkansas Tech (9-2), a second-place finisher in the perennially powerful Gulf South Conference, moves on to face fifth-ranked North Alabama (10-1) in Florence, Ala., next Saturday.
ATU's 41 points were the most yielded by the UNCP all season and the most since surrendering 57 at home to Wingate on Sept. 15, 2007. UNCP's Cory Smith was 6-of-17 passing for 122 yards and a touchdown, while the 3-headed rushing attack of Keith Gore (88 yards), Travis Daniels (74 yards) and Rashon Kennedy (20 yards) combined for 182 yards.
Daniels' 74 yards puts him at 1,042 for the season, making him UNCP's first 1,000-yard rusher. The first quarter was one to be forgotten by the UNCP defense, which was unable to slow down the ATU offense and its senior quarterback. Pembroke's offense also struggled against the Wonder Boys' defense, which did not allow a UNPC first down in the first 23+ minutes of the outing.
“They always found a way to keep going," said head coach Pete Shinnick. "When we put them in third-and-long situations, (Arkansas Tech) seemed to always get a first down. We needed to play perfect in order to win and I felt we played close, but ATU played nearly perfect football and I congratulate them on that."
Graziano delivered a perfect 43-yard strike to Landon Turner, catching the receiver in stride for the game's first touchdown. The signal caller pump-faked to his left then hit Turner, who had beaten a Braves' defender down the left sideline, to cap a four-play, 60-yard drive. A 37-yard punt return by Adrian Holiday set the Wonder Boys up on the UNCP 39-yard line on the next possession by the hosts and Cody Burns would cap the ensuing drive on a short touchdown plunge to put Tech up 14-0.
The Wonder Boys started the second quarter with the ball at the UNCP 12-yard line. Graziano hit Wright on a curl route in the end zone for Tech's third touchdown of the half. Another three-and-out by the Braves followed by an 8-play, 44-yard drive by Tech capped off by a Travis Cockerham 41-yard field goal made the score 24-0 with 11:01 still to go in the half.
The two teams traded possessions back-and-forth over the final seven minutes of the half, with neither team able to put any points on the board. At halftime Tech led UNCP 24-7. For the frame, Graziano completed 24-of-40 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns.