The difference between a winning season and one with a few regrets might be a handful of plays or players for college football teams. Either might be the case for Barton College, which dropped to 3-7 with a 34-28 loss Saturday at Limestone University in Gaffney, South Carolina.
With a chance for a fourth win at home this Saturday, the Bulldogs are right where anyone who pays attention to NCAA Division II football would expect for a team in its third season upon reviving the sport after 71 years in the spring of 2021. The only problem in that equation is last fall. In their first full season of football since 1950, the Bulldogs turned some heads by going 6-5 in the rugged South Atlantic Conference. One of those six victories was a 26-20 overtime decision against then No. 8 and unbeaten Wingate at Truist Stadium.
This season there haven’t been any upsets, no victories over SAC teams with winning records or even better records than Barton. The Bulldogs lost decisively to nationally ranked teams in Newberry, Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate, which completely shut down Barton in a 28-3 outcome two weeks ago at Wingate, as well as at FCS Davidson in week 2. However, there are three losses that might have swung the Bulldogs’ way had a play or two gone their way or if a starter or two been on the field. A 24-18 setback at Truist on Sept. 24 was quickly followed by another home loss, this one even tighter at 14-13 to Tusculum. Then there was Saturday’s defeat at Limestone, the only team to lose to Barton last fall — decisively — and beat the Bulldogs this year.
It’s easy to find reasons why Barton is looking at two or three fewer wins than last fall. Injuries, which were almost nonexistent for the Bulldogs in 2021, have wracked the team this year, exposing one of its weaknesses: experienced depth. With many of the starters part of head coach Chip Hester and staff’s first recruiting class, finding minutes for younger players has been tough to do at times — until they’re needed because of injury.
The Bulldogs have not created their own breaks this season as they did a year ago when they led the NCAA in average turnover margin. The Barton offense has given the ball away 14 times, which is only four more than last year, but the defense has just 16 takeaways in comparison to 27 in the fall of 2021.
The little things accumulate. Last season, Barton scored on 86% of its red zone opportunities while this season that number has dropped to 64.5%. The third-down conversion rate has dropped from 41% to 36% in 2022.
“I thought, even as we go back last year, I don’t think we were quite as good as maybe some people thought, but I don’t think we’re as bad as some think right now,” Hester said. “And it’s not like we’re way off. It’s not like we’re just awful and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I think there is and I think we’re close.”
Hester said it’s a natural progression. The Bulldogs are on the right path and depth and experience will come and those handful of plays that determine some games will swing their way again. After all, it’s the narrow losses that gnaw at Hester.
“We need to get better. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to get better and be a little bit more efficient and make those few extra plays. And so we’ll continue to fight as coaches and as players.”
99 YARDS OF TURF
If anything about Saturday’s loss at Limestone will gnaw at Hester, it’s bound to be the Saints’ 99-yard touchdown drive following a Bulldogs fumble on the opening possession of the second half. Barton trailed 21-14 and was on the verge of tying the score, or having a chance to take the lead, when redshirt sophomore Jordan Terrell lost the ball on the Limestone 1-yard line.
It was about the only hiccup on the day for Terrell, the nation’s fifth-leading rusher coming into the game who slammed his way for 224 yards on 38 carries. It might not have had the impact it did had the Saints not marched 99 yards the other way to a two-touchdown lead. Limestone converted a pair of short third-down plays and quarterback Dustin Noller completed 3-of-5 passes, including a 33-yarder to Jadarius Hector for his second TD.
“So, that was a big turning point because we get a little momentum back and get the ball and we just struggled to get off the field on third down today a little bit,” Hester said. “Going into it, they’re really good on offense; they’re the best offense in the league and so we’ve got some guys that are in there fighting and doing the best they can, but, you know, physics plays a factor in there. They moved the ball; we weren’t able to take away the run.”
Indeed, the Saints piled up 480 yards of offense, nearly 20 more than their SAC-leading average coming into the game. Noller was 18 of 29 for 214 yards and the two TDs to Hector.
Hester marveled at one of Hector’s scoring grabs.
“They’ve got a crossing route, and he dives out and the quarterback makes a just a perfect throw, and it was a perfect throw to put it right there,” Hester said. “I know it had to be an inch. … So their passing game is really efficient and I think that’s something that we’ve got to get better at. We’ve got to get on it.”
Limestone sophomore Tre Stewart, the No. 7 rusher in the nation coming in, had another big day with 218 yards and two TDs.
The Saints were just a little better across the board than Barton offensively. The Bulldogs were able to turn both takeaways into touchdowns but Limestone negated that by also converting two Barton turnovers into TDs. Shane Perry forced a first-half fumble by Stewart after a short completion that Barton’s Zayvion Brady recovered. Quayon Gilbert picked off one of Noller’s passes in the second half.
“To be able to get to a place where you’ve got good balance, then you become really hard to defend,” Hester said. “And then, you’d love to be able to make a team one-dimensional and we just weren’t able to do that. I think we had guys flying around out there. And if you can’t stop them, you need to create some turnovers and so our guys, I thought, got into ball-hawking mode and created some turnovers, which in turn gave us some chances.”
PASSING PICKS UP
With starting QB Jaquan Lynch out for the remainder of the season, Flippen started his third straight game Saturday. The starter in Barton’s first two games in the spring of 2021, Flippen had his best day as a passer in a Bulldogs uniform at Limestone with 141 yards on 11-of-21 accuracy. He hit Anton Popov on a 27-yard TD pass in the first half and found Gabe Hinceman on a 5-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter.
Flippen, who also ran eight times for 24 yards including a 13-yard scramble for Barton’s final TD, did not enjoy a good start to his afternoon. His first pass attempt was incomplete and his second was intercepted by Ahmond Glass as Limestone built a 14-0 lead in the game’s first 12 minutes.
“I’m proud of Tyler because it didn’t start great there in our passing game, but he hung in there and made some really good throws and our guys made some plays,” Hester said. “I thought (offensive coordinator) Coach (Landon) Mariani gave gave him some stuff that he felt comfortable with and I think that has a lot to do with success as well. So, in the grand scheme of things, our guys fought it out and and had a pretty decent day offensively. You know, we always talk about it, if you can score a touchdown a quarter to get to 28, that’s what you like to get to and feel like you’ve got a good chance of winning those games. But just a little bit short here and there.”
KEEP ON CHURNING
Terrell was brilliant again Saturday, surpassing the 200-yard plateau for the second straight game and the fifth time in his career. The 5-foot-10, 210-pounder from Lee County by way of Ramseur averaged 5.9 yards on his 38 carries, which matched the season high he set in the opening 17-3 win at Chowan.
Now with 1,406 yards and 10 rushing TDs, Terrell has accounted for 72.5% of Barton’s 1,938 yards on the ground this season.
“He’s not 100% healthy either but he is tough as nails and really stepped up in a big way today,” Hester said of Terrell. “He was as physical as I’ve ever seen him, he was fighting for every yard. And I think that was mirrored with our offensive lineman. And we had guys that are pretty banged up. We had guys filling in and I thought they were fighting up there. I mean, they were straining and grinding it out, so I’m really proud of Jordan and the offensive line because I think they kept us in it.”
FLYING FLEET RETURN
Barton’s final 2022 opponent will be the first team to face Barton after restarting the program in 2021 as Erskine makes its second visit to Truist Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 12. The Flying Fleet, which revived its program in the spring of 2021 following a 70-year absence, pulled out a 30-28 win in Wilson on Feb. 27, 2021.
However, the two programs haven’t followed the same path since then. Erskine has gone 6-21 in three seasons, including a 2-8 mark this year. The Fleet have lost all eight SAC games in 2022.
Clearly, Saturday’s game is one that Barton hopes to win to conclude the 2022 season on a positive note as well as to honor its five seniors – Jackson Brooks, Nate Byers, Joseph Ledbetter, Tim Montague and Dionte Osbey.
“Yeah, it ought to be a great day and we’ll have some seniors that we’ll honor next week and I think that gives you a lot to play for,” Hester said. “Our guys knew going into this past game that we weren’t in good position for a playoff spot or SAC championship but our guys fought. … And I think that shows a lot of a lot of character and hopefully, we can build on that.”
AROUND THE SAC
No. 20 Newberry and Mars Hill will meet in the inaugural SAC championship game after the Wolves and the Lions won the Piedmont and Mountain divisions, respectively, on Saturday.
Newberry knocked off No. 22 Wingate 24-15 while Mars Hill dispatched Tusculum 34-27 in games that were de facto division title matches.
Elsewhere, Lenoir-Rhyne steamrolled Catawba 62-10 while Carson-Newman slipped past UVA Wise 38-22 and Emory & Henry blanked Erskine 32-0.
In Saturday’s finales, Carson-Newman visits Catawba, Tusculum travels to Lenoir-Rhyne, Wingate hosts UVA Wise and Emory & Henry is the guest of Limestone.