Courtesy of Lakeland University
ROCKFORD, Illinois -- The Lakeland University football team is back in the NCAA Division III playoffs for the second straight season after an overpowering first half led to a 52-30 win over Rockford (Ill.) University Saturday at Sam Greeley Field.
The Muskies wrapped up the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference's automatic bid to the championship again and will make consecutive trips to the playoffs for the first time in school history. Lakeland finished 5-1 in the conference to tie Aurora (Ill.) University for the league title, but the Muskies own the AQ tiebreaker via a 55-25 win over the Spartans a week ago.
Lakeland won at least a share of the NACC title for the third straight year and its 28th conference title in school history. The team now awaits the opponent for its first round playoff game next Saturday, which will be announced Sunday night at 5 p.m. Central time on D3football.com.
The Muskies (7-3 overall) lit up the scoreboard for 50 points in the first half, taking a 50-0 halftime lead. Lakeland
scored on seven straight possessions in the half, including 34 points in the second quarter, to blow out to a resounding margin before the Regents (1-9 overall, 1-5 NACC) fought back to make things interesting late.
Michael Whitley (Jr.-Vidalia, La.) threw four touchdown passes, three to Kezlow Smith (Sr.-Pontiac, Mich.), and the Muskies offense was unstoppable in the first half. Lakeland gained 444 yards, 20 first downs and 9.9 yards per play and Whitley completed 17 of 19 passes in the first 30 minutes.
The Muskies also scored three rushing touchdowns in the half, with Whitley, Eldrada Meeks (So.-Southfield, Mich.) and Michael Hilliard (Jr.-Detroit, Mich.) all getting into the end zone. Hilliard scored the final touchdown from two yards out with six seconds left in the half and the extra point by Conrad Foss (So.-Muskegon, Mich.) made it a 50-point lead at the break.
The Lakeland defense also was stifling in the first half, limiting the hosts to 96 yards and forcing two turnovers. Dajuan Darling (Jr.-Detroit, Mich.) intercepted a pass, one of his two interceptions in the game, and Diante Moses (So.-Houston, Texas) also picked off another.
With the outcome seemingly decided, the second half certainly could have turned into 30 minutes of garbage time for both teams, but the Regents continued to fight and made a game of it. Rockford scored 24 points in the third quarter to make for a few nervous moments for the Muskies, whose only two points in the second half were a Rockford point after touchdown attempt blocked and returned by Jawon Turner (Jr.-Brooklyn, Wis.) all the way for two points.
Whitley played little in the second half and finished 19-for-23 for 318 yards and four touchdown passes, plus 34 yards and a touchdown rushing. Meeks led the running game with 14 carries for a career-high 94 yards, just six shy of his first career 100-yard rushing game.
Smith caught five passes for 115 yards and Dezmen Morse (Jr.-Milwaukee, Wis.) also added five catches for 83 yards plus two two-point conversion pass receptions. Michael Wynn (Sr.-Detroit, Mich.) also caught five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
Kevyn Lewis (Sr.-Inkster, Mich.) led the defense with six tackles and a pass breakup. Marcus Williams (So.-Houston, Texas) posted a sack and Smith also played some on defense and came up with a strip sack late in the game recovered by Mario Rafe (So.-Bourbonnais, Ill.) to stop the Regents' final threat.
Chance Manning led Rockford with a game-high 152 yards rushing on 22 carries, including a 50-yard score early in the third quarter to get the hosts on the board. Andrew Perez completed 15 of 28 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns and Mar Sean Vercher caught eight Perez passes for 104 yards and two scores.