LAGRANGE, Ga. – The Huntingdon football team left no room for chance at LaGrange College on Saturday.
The Hawks built a 31-point lead early in the third quarter and beat the Panthers 45-21 to clinch the USA South Athletic Conference championship. The conference title is the Hawks' fourth in the past five seasons.
"It's hard to put it in perspective right now," Huntingdon head coach Mike Turk said. "This team has probably come as far as any team I've been around when it comes to where we started and where we finished the regular season. That says a lot about these players and coaches and I'm proud of every one of them."
After starting the season with a 1-2 record, the Hawks (7-3, 6-1 USA South) reeled off five straight conference wins before stumbling last week in a 23-7 loss to North Carolina Wesleyan.
With the conference title on the line, Huntingdon bounced back and took control early on Saturday. Quarterback Michael Lambert connected with Otis Porter for a 17-yard touchdown on Huntingdon's first possession before Eric Thomas scored a pair of second-quarter touchdowns on runs of 1 and 2 yards. Cole Starr closed the first-half scoring with a 47-yard field goal.
Leading 24-0 to start the second half, Thomas scored on a 15-yard run for his third touchdown of the game. Dontavion Cunningham and Zack Self closed the scoring for the Hawks. Cunningham scored on a 9-yard run and Self scored on a 2-yard reception from Lambert.
Huntingdon will advance to the NCAA Division III playoffs for the fifth time in program history. First-round opponents will be announced on Sunday afternoon during the Division III Selection Show.
Records: Huntingdon (7-3, 6-1 USA South); LaGrange (3-7, 1-6 USA South)
Turning Point: Huntingdon's strong start on offense and defense set the tone for the game. Huntingdon took a 14-0 lead in the first 20 minutes of the game and closed the first half with 10 points in the final minute.
While the offense was scoring points, the defense held LaGrange in check during the first half. During the first two quarters, Huntingdon held the Panthers to two first downs and 34 yards of offense on 23 plays.
"We started well on both sides of the ball," Turk said. "We scored on our first possession and we had a 14-0 lead in the second quarter before they picked up a first down. We were able to score a few more points in the second quarter and carry a 24-0 lead into halftime. That's big in any game, but especially in a game with a rival like LaGrange."
Notable Performances: Huntingdon quarterback Michael Lambert and running back Eric Thomas each turned in another solid performance on Saturday. Lambert completed 19-of-24 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns and Thomas rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
Series history: Saturday was the 14th meeting between Huntingdon and LaGrange since 2006. Huntingdon has an 11-3 lead in the series and has won five straight.
Back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons: With his performance on Saturday, junior running back Eric Thomas became the first Hawk to rush for more than 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. After rushing for 1,020 yards last season and becoming just the third Huntingdon running back to gain 1,000 yards, Thomas has 1,004 yards and 13 touchdowns on 183 carries this season. Alex Baronich set the program's single-season record with 1,197 yards on 235 carries in 2009 and John Iwaniec reached 1,047 yards on 188 carries in 2016.
Starr makes his mark: Sophomore Cole Starr's 47-yard field goal to end the first half was one of the longest field goals in Huntingdon history and was just the fourth field goal from 45 yards or longer in program history. Cody Lange set the program record with a 49-yard field goal against North Carolina Wesleyan in 2005. Starr's 47-yard field goal is tied with Steven Witt for the second longest in program history. Witt's field goal came against Sewanee in 2004.
Lambert moves into third: With two touchdown passes on Saturday, quarterback Michael Lambert pushed his season total to 24. The 24 touchdown passes are the third most in a season by a Hawk. Luke Bailey holds the record with 32 in 2016.
Porter reaches 50: Senior receiver Otis Porter recorded his 50th catch of the season on Saturday, marking just the seventh time a Hawk has reached 50 receptions in a season and the second time he has reached 50. Porter had 53 receptions in 2017. This season, he has 50 receptions for 746 yards and a program record 13 touchdowns.
Passing: Michael Lambert: 19/24 for 187 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
Receiving: Otis Porter: 5 receptions for 64 yards, 1 TD
Zack Self: 2-yard touchdown reception
Rushing: Eric Thomas: 22 rushes for 125 yards, 3 TDs
Dontavion Cunningham: 9-yard touchdown run
Kicking: Cole Starr: 6/6 PAT; 1/1 field goals (47 yards)
Punting: Zach Johnson: 6 punts, 35.2 average, long of 51 yards
Forced Fumbles: Karl Dorn (1)
Fumble Recoveries: Casey Peppers (1)
Passes Broken Up: Ke'Darius Thornton (2)
Blocked Kicks: Kelvin Bowser (1)
Coming Up: Huntingdon will play in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. First-round matchups will be released on Sunday. The Division III Selection Show is set to begin at 4:30 p.m. (Central).