BRIDGEWATER — A lot had changed in the 15 months since Bridgewater College last played a football game. But a crushing defense and an offense designed to keep the opposition on its heels remained the same for the Eagles, who opened their 2021 spring season with a 27-21 victory against Shenandoah.
This one won’t count in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference standings — the teams will meet again in a league contest next month — but it extends Bridgewater’s regular season winning streak to 15 games. The Eagles haven’t lost to an ODAC opponent since a 44-41 overtime setback at Randolph-Macon on Oct. 20, 2018.
“I’m always grateful and I’m excited to win,” Bridgewater coach Michael Clark said. “But then, I know I need to improve to win again.”
The Eagles led by three touchdowns in the first half, but had to hold on to start this unusual season with a victory.
Bridgewater used 17 plays to go 50 yards over the course of more than nine minutes in the fourth quarter, but had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Cameron Gieseman. The kick made it a 6-point game, but left Shenandoah with 2:28 on the clock to attempt to go 75 yards for the winning touchdown.
The Hornets got all the way down to the Bridgewater 30-yard line with 56 seconds remaining, but Brett Tharp came away with an interception to seal the victory. Tharp finished with nine tackles to lead a great defensive effort as BC held the Hornets to 250 yards total offense, just 33 of them on the ground.
“We’ve been grinding out here in practice, so it felt great to get out there and play,” Tharp, a junior out of East Hardy High School, said. “Everybody was excited we were going to get to play. We also knew we just had to go out and play our defense. We had faith in our offense and even three points helped us knowing they had to get in the end zone to win.”
Taking the field for the first time since Nov. 23, 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the season in the fall, the Bridgewater offense didn’t miss a beat on its opening possession. Senior Matt Lawton got the start at quarterback after backing up four-year starter Jay Scroggins during the Eagles 2019 ODAC championship season.
Lawton capped a 75-yard opening drive with a 24-yard pass to Derrick Jenkins to give Bridgewater a quick 7-0 lead.
The Eagles caught some breaks as well. Shenandoah’s David Agyei picked off a pass from Lawton late in the first quarter and looked like he was going to return it all the way for a touchdown before Bridgewater’s Viante Tucker stripped it away at the last second. The fumble bounced through the end zone and BC resumed its possession at its own 25-yard line.
The Eagles took advantage, and with junior Noah Beckley getting a shot under center, BC went 75 yards in 11 plays with Beckley sneaking it in from a yard out to make it a two-score game less than a minute into the second quarter.
Bridgewater led 21-0 late in the half before Shenandoah finally got something going on offense, putting together a 6-play 55-yard drive that took just 52 seconds, nearly tripling the Hornets’ total offense to that point, to make it a 21-7 game at halftime.
Early in the third quarter, the Hornets took over in Bridgewater territory after a BC fumble and quickly moved inside the five-yard line, where Shenandoah quarterback Zackary Mathis found Nicholas Rauchwarg in the end zone to get the visitors back within a touchdown.
Bridgewater tacked on a field goal, but had its first true defensive breakdown of the game at the start of the fourth quarter when Mathis again hooked up with Rauchwarg, this time on a 63-yard catch-and-run to make it a 24-21 Eagles lead with 14 minutes left in the game.
The Eagles answered with a 16-play, 50-yard drive that melted more than nine minutes off the clock, but BC only managed a field goal and Shenandoah took over needing a touchdown to win before Tharp made one last huge defensive play.
Bridgewater returns to action Friday night, heading to Randolph-Macon for the first of four regular season ODAC games this spring.
“We’re going to have to quickly study this game,” Clark said. “But in the end I get to teach off a win and to be able to teach these kids off a win, I’ll be very thankful and grateful for that.”