ABILENE, Texas – Special teams helped McMurry University overcome a sluggish first half, and the No. 20-ranked War Hawks defeated Mississippi College 63-38 Saturday at Wilford Moore Stadium to all but ensure their first ever NCAA Division III Playoffs berth.
D.J. Baiza had an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown and Jeret Smith returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the first half, and Mississippi College fumbled a kickoff return late in the second quarter setting up a last-second touchdown helping McMurry take a 35-24 lead at half.
Stephen Warren threw the 26-yard touchdown pass to R.J. Long filling in for Jake Mullin who sprained his knee in the second quarter and did not return.
The War Hawks improved to 8-2 overall and 7-1 in league play to lock up second place in the American Southwest Conference. In addition, at No. 5 in the NCAA Division III South Region rankings, McMurry should hear its name called Sunday at 5 p.m. CDT to guarantee its first playoff berth in the NCAA era and first as a program since 1980.
Mullin left the game with 81 passing yards and a touchdown, and his status for the first round of the playoffs Saturday is unknown. Warren filled in nicely with three touchdown passes and 186 yards while Justin Johnson and Chris Simpson combined for 206 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
However, the two returns along with two blocked punts highlighted a special teams effort that propelled McMurry to its first 8-win season since 1998. Corey Hall and Kevin Stewart each had blocked punts that set up touchdowns. Hall blocked a punt that went only 18 yards, which led to a 7-play 56-yard scoring drive where Warren found Long for a 6-yard catch with 1:08 to play in the second quarter giving McMurry a 28-24 lead.
On the ensuing drive Stewart blocked another Choctaw punt allowing Warren to find Long again on the last play of the first half to help the War Hawks carry an 11-point lead into the locker room at half time.
Long had two receptions for 32 yards and two scores while Smith and Eric Shaffer also had touchdown grabs.
Will Morris led a defensive effort that held the Choctaws to only 112 passing yards and 283 overall. He had six tackles and a pass breakup. The senior free safety now has 203 tackles in his career and passed Blake Timmons (2004-07) for 25th on the all-time school tackle list.
Stewart had five tackles including two for a loss to go along with his punt block. Hall had five tackles, a pass breakup and 0.5 tackles for a loss to accompany his block while Ty Tuner had six tackles and a sack to round out a nice day for the defensive line.
Johnson gained 134 yards on 22 carries while Simpson had 72 on six respectively helping the War Hawks gain a season-high 188 rushing yards.
The Choctaws fell to 3-7 overall and finished ASC play with a 2-8 record; the second consecutive losing season for Mississippi College despite making the NCAA Division III playoffs in 2009.
The Choctaws' Steven Knight helped Mississippi College cut the lead to one point with two consecutive scoring runs of 59 and 21 yards late in the first and early in the second quarter. Smith took home the 100-yard kick before Blake Rowell forced, recovered and scored a Mullin fumble and Chris Campbell drilled a 52-yard field goal to give the Choctaws a 24-21 lead with 7:01 in the second.
However, the two punt team blunders for the visitors set up the two touchdown passes from Warren and MC managed only two fourth quarter touchdowns after the game was out of hand.
In the losing effort, Knight had 118 yards on 20 carries while Tommy Reyer finished 9 of 22 passing for 112 yards and two scores. McMurry's D.J. Baiza picked off his fourth pass of the season off Reyer in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Garrett Horst, Bryce Brewer and Jeremy Bertrand had nine tackles apiece while Bertrand had two interceptions in the losing effort.
McMurry's players and coaches will play host to a viewing ceremony of the NCAA Playoff Selection show at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Mabee Room on campus at the student center.