North Greenville football put together quite a memorable year in 2016, capped by the program’s second trip to the NCAA Division-II Playoffs.
The Crusaders entered the season looking at a tough slate of games, a group of 11-games which, by the end of the season, was ranked the hardest schedule in Division-II football based on the rating percentage index (RPI). The daunting schedule deterred neither player nor coach as NGU battled its way to a postseason nod.
North Greenville’s first game of the season seemed to be a precursor for the 2016 season. North Greenville took an early lead, but the Tigers battled back to take a lead. A late touchdown and a defensive stop in the final minute of the game would lock up the first victory of the season for the Crusaders. The game itself was as intense and physical as any game North Greenville has ever played and a small sample of what the final 10-games of the season would hold.
The Crusaders improved to 2-0 on the season after a week two win over Lenoir-Rhyne but consecutive losses, one to Newberry in a closely contested game that was decided by a late Newberry touchdown and a 49-35 loss to UNC Pembroke would find the Crusaders at 2-2 early in the season.
The Crusaders would split the next four games with wins over Mars Hill and Tusculum. The 56-21 win over Mars Hill marked the second consecutive win over the Lions, a program first for the NGU football program since the two teams began competition in 2003. North Greenville’s second win in the four-game stretch came against Tusculum College, a 31-7 blowout of the Pioneers.
NGU’s final two losses of the regular season were to Division-I Citadel and North Alabama, a team that the Crusaders would face in the quarterfinals of the playoffs and eventual runners-up in the national championship. Both contests were scheduled road games, but the impending landfall of Hurricane Matthew forced the game against The Citadel to Tigerville, where the Crusaders and Bulldogs battled each other in front a record crowd at Younts Stadium.
The Crusaders entered the final stretch of the season needing to win each of the final three games. North Greenville rallied the troops and defeated 25th ranked Wingate University, Carson-Newman, and Limestone College in consecutive weeks. Coach Farrington and his team ranked just outside the top seven heading into the final week of the season. The win over the Saints catapulted the Crusaders to the sixth position and extended the season for at least one more week.
NGU’s playoff run lasted three weeks as the Crusaders went on the road to defeat Florida Tech 27-13 and returned home to blowout Tuskegee 45-26. The season came to an end in the quarterfinals against North Alabama in a 38-0 defeat that halted a five-game winning streak for the Crusaders.
**PICKS DO NOT REFLECT THE OPINIONS OF NGU COACHING STAFF**
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: TRACY SCOTT (RUNNING BACK)
Tracy Scott entered 2016 relatively unknown but quickly made a name for himself among regional opponents. The redshirt freshman rushed for a team-high 1,111 yards and 15-touchdowns. The superb freshman out of Carolina High School had four rushing touchdowns of over 40-yards including a long of 65. He also had four games with at least two touchdowns and one game with three scores.
OFFENSIVE MVP: WILL HUNTER (QUARTERBACK)
One of the biggest question marks heading into the season was the replacement for NGU’s all-time leading passer Nelson Hughes. Will Hunter, a sophomore out of Lexington, South Carolina stepped in and filled the vacancy. The first-year starter was a game manager for the NGU offense, bringing a needed consistency to the unit. The signal caller was 23rd in the country with 3,035 passing yards while also tossing 23-touchdowns. He had just four interceptions on the season heading into the final game of the season against North Alabama, on 367 attempts. He completed 53.5-percent of his passes on the season, leading the march to the playoffs.
DEFENSIVE MVP: SAM HOUSTON (LINEBACKER)
Sam Houston made his first career start four years ago at Charleston Southern. The rest is history. The Easley, South Carolina native wrapped up a decorated career at North Greenville by setting a new program best for career tackles with 359 stops. The two-time defensive team captain finished the 2016 season with a career-high 124 total tackles, making him second in school history for tackles in a season. He also set a career high with 13-tackles for a loss.
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP: MATT GRAVELY AND BOBBY FOOS
It’s not often in college football that a first-year player makes an immediate impact, but that’s exactly what freshman placekicker Matt Gravely did. The Pickens native filled a void in NGU’s offense this season, taking over the team’s field goal kicking duties as well as the kickoff role. Gravely was perfect on the season in PAT attempts nailing 54 of them while also knocking through 15 of 21 field goal attempts. More impressively, the diaper dandy was 5 of 8 from 40-yards or greater including a career long of 47-yards, tying his brother Justin’s record for longest field goal in program history. Gravely was equally impressive in his kickoff duties, averaging 60-yards a kick with 19-touchbacks.
The field position battle in football is a game within a game. North Greenville often won this battle with the help of sophomore booter Bobby Foos. The second-year starter flipped field position in favor of the Crusaders several times this season, booming 14-punts of 50-yards or more, downing 23- of his 65-attempts inside the 20-yardline. His long of the season came against Tuskegee in the 2nd round of the playoffs. But Foos wasn’t just a defensive weapon for North Greenville, doubling as a tight end, making an impact on the offensive side of the ball as well. He caught 20-passes this season, turning three of those receptions into scores, including a long of 64-yards.
STAT OF THE YEAR: RED-ZONE PRODUCTION
North Greenville’s offense put together a solid season, turning a balanced attack with an effective passing game and a physical, dominating ground game. Even more impressive though was NGU’s production inside the red-zone. The Crusaders finished the season second in the country, capitalizing on 41 of 43 trips inside the 20. The only team better? The eventual National Champions, Northwest Missouri State. NGU got it done in several ways, throwing 12-TD passes, 19-rushing touchdowns, and 10-field goals.
COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: NORTH GREENVILLE – 34 WINGATE – 30
BIG SECOND HALF PROPELS NGU TO FIFTH CONSECUTIVE WIN OVER #24 WINGATE
WOW! Heading into week nine of the season, North Greenville was 4-4 and looking at another near miss when it came to posting season berths. The Crusaders had lost two of their last three games, including a road loss to North Alabama and had fallen further out of the top seven in Super Region Two. The summit was still possible, but the hill had gotten a little steeper, and following the first half against Wingate, it looked as if NGU was in danger of slipping further down the hill.
Thankfully, though, a regulation football game is four quarters, and an early third quarter score lit a fuse. The Crusaders would go on to score 31-points in the second half to earn the upset victory over the Bulldogs. The final nail in the coffin came with 1:12 left when Will Hunter capped an eight play, 85-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Mason Sanders to give NGU its first lead of the game at 34-30. Wingate was left with some time on the clock but Travis Beatty picked off a Kyle Johnson pass with 49-seconds left on the clock to spark what would be a six-game winning streak for the Crusaders including two wins in the playoffs.
GAME OF THE YEAR: NORTH GREENVILLE – 27 FLORIDA TECH – 13
NORTH GREENVILLE ADVANCES WITH PLAYOFF WIN OVER FLORIDA TECH
Picking “Game of the Year” was about as hard as picking “Best Sports Movie” with the choices being “Remember the Titans” and “Rudy”, but we went with North Greenville and Florida Tech. Heading into the first week of the playoffs, the Crusaders were undoubtedly the underdog, having to travel more than eight hours from home to take on one of the best offenses in Division II football, but the boys in red and black were up to the task.
North Greenville’s defenders held the Panthers to just 13-points (24-below their season average) while the NGU offense racked up 27-points on 397-yards of offense to advance to the second round of the tournament. The win over the Panthers set up a second-round game with Tuskegee in which the Crusaders dominated the Golden Tigers to improve to 2-0 in playoff games in Younts Stadium and 4-0 overall in postseason action (2 NCCAA Victory Bowl Wins).
2016 IMPACT PLAYERS
NIGEL GAY: DEFENSIVE BACK
NGU’s defense benefitted from having several upperclassmen among its ranks this season and Nigel Gay was one of them. Gay led the Crusaders with 5-interceptions on the season and doubled as the team’s punt returner. He finished 3rd on the team with 76-tackles and made his mark in the program’s record book, picking off 13-passes in his career.
SETH LAUGHTER: DEFENSIVE LINE
Seth Laughter anchored the defensive line this season at the nose guard position. He played in all 13-games for the Crusaders and was routinely seen in the opponent’s backfield. Laughter finished the season with 55-tackles including 6.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
NGU OFFENSIVE LINE
The big guys up front don't get much recognition, but the North Greenville front five was the fuel that spurred the NGU offense. The men in the trenches routinely bullied opponents to the tune of 432-yards a game including 191-yards on the ground and 241-yards through the air. A unit that weathered several injuries this season and continued its production paved the way for 29-touchdowns on the ground and held back defenders for 24-touchdowns through the air.
JAVON SMITH: WIDE RECEIVER
Javon Smith proved to be a game breaker for the North Greenville offense this season and a big-play option for Will Hunter. Smith caught 52-passes for 776-yards on the season and took nine of those to the house for a touchdown. Smith led all receivers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. On the season, Smith had two games with multiple scores including against The Citadel in which he scored once from 99-yards and another from 90-yards out. Smith also had a 79-yard touchdown do his credit and scored from 51-yards.