Joey Connors ran for two touchdowns and caught another, the Berry defense held the Scots to just 116 yards of offense, and back-up quarterback Heath Burchfield spearheaded the Vikings’ 31-0 victory in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at Valhalla Stadium.
The game was a rematch of both team’s season opener, which Berry won 38-3, and gives the No. 18-ranked Vikings a 2-0 all-time mark in first round games after defeating Huntingdon College last year in the program’s first-ever postseason contest.
Berry (10-1) will play No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor in the second round next Saturday after the Crusaders defeated No. 7 Hardin-Simmons 27-6 on Saturday. An official announcement from the NCAA on the place and time of the game is expected to be made today.
Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski knew what they had overcome against Maryville (7-3) after losing their first game of the season the week before in the Vikings’ regular season finale at Trinity University.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to bounce back after a loss, and we really didn’t have doubt about that,” Kunczewski said. “All year we’ve done a good job of being able to run the football and stop the run. I’ve said time and time again, we try to make the game of football pretty complicated, but at the end of the day, when you can control the line of scrimmage good things usually happen. And I felt like we did that for the most part today.”
Connors, a senior from Johns Creek, finished with 70 yards receiving and 105 yards on nine carries, the longest of which was a 74-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that not only put Berry ahead 21-0 but also put Connors in the Berry record books.
The run is both the longest touchdown run and the longest run from scrimmage in the program’s six-year history.
“As our senior year, we wanted to get out and play one last time on our home turf,” Connors said about the feeling of playing in the game. "I saw a group of men that love to play football right beside me, and that fueled me too. We just love playing the game.”
Burchfield was 20 of 36 passing for 216 yards and no interceptions. He threw a 22-yard touchdown to Connors to open the scoring early in the second quarter. The junior started in place of a hurt Tate Adcock and was a catalyst for the Vikings’ offense, throwing for 11 first downs and hitting Berry receivers at a steady pace.
“I thought Heath played very well and had a good command of the game,” Kunczewski said, adding that they have had consistency for the most part behind center in recent years.
But with Tate set to graduate after this season, the need to establish other quarterbacks has been something Berry’s offensive coaches have not ignored.
“It’s important to get some meaningful reps to a guy like Heath, and he’s got those in every single game this season,” Kunczewksi said. “It was a good job by our offensive staff of thinking ahead and obviously it paid dividends in a game like today.”
Defensively, Berry had six sacks on Maryville quarterbacks and held the Scots to just 55 yards rushing on 40 carries. Coosa product Bryson Lamboy once again led the Vikings with six total tackles, two tackles for loss and his 10th sack of the season.
“We practice being physical up front, and we preach staying in our gaps,” the senior said. “We just try to do our jobs.”
Former Pepperell standout Trevor Thomas came in at quarterback for the Scots in the second quarter, a role he has been in on several times in his freshman season.
While he reeled off a 24-yard run early in Maryville’s first drive of the period, he was hampered by Berry’s defense and threw an interception to the Vikings’ Justen Booket on third-and-28 to end his first series behind series.
Berry put together a 68-yard drive in the final minutes of the first half as Burchfield competed four of five passes, the last two going to Connors for 17 and 27 yards and getting the Vikings down to the Maryville 1.
Connors got the call again on the very next play, this time for a 1-yard push across goal line with 39 seconds to go to give Berry a 14-0 lead.
Trey Gregory made a 21-yard field goal near the start of the fourth quarter that made it 24-0. Linebacker Cameron Taube got to Thomas deep in his own territory a few drives later, knocking the ball out of his hands and leading to an 11-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Jordan Roman with 42 seconds left to play.