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Wildcats win opening-round playoff game

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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For the third time in the last four seasons, the Baker Wildcats have won their opening-round game of the NAIA FCS Playoffs and will now advance into the quarterfinals. No. 2 Baker beat No. 13 Sterling College 44-21 on Saturday at Liston Stadium.

“I like our football team and I’ve been saying it all year,” head coach Mike Grossner said. “When we’re right and we’re coachable and we do it right, we look pretty good.”

The Wildcats continue their best start in school history with an unblemished 12-0 record on the season.

Baker will host No. 8 Lindsey Wilson at 2:36 p.m. on Saturday at Liston Stadium in the quarterfinal round. The Blue Raiders hail from Columbia, Kentucky, and have only lost one game this season. Lindsey Wilson beat Grand View 34-27 in overtime on Saturday and will take the road for the first time this postseason.

“We’re having nothing but fun out here,” senior linebacker Kharon Brown said. “I told the guys yesterday in our meeting to take time and enjoy the little moments, because we’ve only got three more.”

Junior running back Cornell Brown saved his best game for the season’s most important game of the season to date. Brown rushed for 187 yards on 19 carries, caught seven passes for 84 yards and scored four total touchdowns.

“That was my best game this year so far, but I’ve got to give it up to my teammates and offensive line for playing so well,” Cornell Brown said. “We came into this game motivated and it happened to be me who had the big game, when it could’ve been any of the other five receivers that we have.”

Cornell Brown was voted by the media as the Offensive Player of the Game.

“He’s a big game guy,” Grossner said. “This was his time to shine.”

Senior defensive end Nick Becker was the game’s Defensive Player of the Game and tied the school’s single game record for sacks with four. Becker also made seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 11 total stops.

“In a game against an athletic quarterback, you have to have an athletic defensive end,” Grossner said. “Nick was that guy today.”

The Wildcats outgained Sterling 585 to 394. Baker knocked Sterling’s starting quarterback, Cedrick Phillips, out of the game in the third quarter with an injury and sealed the victory against Sterling’s second and third string quarterbacks. Phillips entered the game with the second-most total offense in the NAIA, with 417 yards per game. Baker held Phillips to only 230 total yards (140 passing and 90 rushing).

Baker jumped out to a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter, thanks to 37 and 30-yard touchdown passes to Cornell Brown, but the Warriors responded and cut Baker’s lead to 10 by halftime. Baker led 24-14 at the break, and if it hadn’t been for an interception in the end zone in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter, the Baker lead would’ve been bigger.

“As we were coming out in the second half, I told the guys to start playing to win,” Grossner said. “Start playing like a championship team. We’re up 10 and their body language was telling me they’re down 20. So let’s go do it and let’s go have fun.”

Baker scored the second half’s first 10 points, but Sterling made the game close at 34-21 in the fourth quarter. The Wildcat defense forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter on interceptions by Akim Francis, who had two on the day, and Avery Parker. Cornell Brown sealed the victory with his fourth touchdown of the game to take a 41-21 lead with six minutes to play.

Baker made 15.5 tackles for a loss and forced four turnovers.

Quarterback Logan Brettell threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns and used seven different receivers. Behind Cornell Brown, Jaylen Rose was Baker’s second leading receiver with four catches for 66 yards, Damon Nolan caught four passes for 65 yards, Quanzee Johnson caught four passes for 49 yards, and Clarence Clark caught four passes for 31 yards.

The Wildcats now have a chance to reach the NAIA FCS semifinals for the first time since 1993. This will be Baker’s ninth appearance in the quarterfinal round.

Grossner has never reached the NAIA semifinals since coming to Baker. His teams in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2015 were all eliminated in the quarterfinal round. Baker lost to Morningside in 2013 and Southern Oregon in 2015. The Wildcats will have home field advantage in Saturday’s quarterfinal.

“We love the fact that the teams we’re going against aren’t comfortable and this isn’t where they’re at,” Kharon Brown said.

Lindsey Wilson is 11-1 and finished 4-1 in the Mid-South Conference. The Blue Raiders have the No. 3 scoring offense in the NAIA, while Baker is No. 2 in scoring offense. Lindsey Wilson’s only loss this season was to No. 3 Reinhardt on Oct. 22, falling 55-34 at home.

The Wildcats will have a tough test this Saturday, but Baker doesn’t intend to take the same exit from 2013 and 2015.

“We have a lot of football left to play,” Cornell Brown said.