Gardner-Webb hits the road for the first time since September 24, playing at first-place Liberty on Saturday afternoon in another tough test in league play. Kickoff is set for 3:34 pm in Williams Stadium and will air live, and exclusively, on the Big South Network. Mike Tilley and Matt Warner will provide the call from Lynchburg.
Liberty has won eight of the last nine meetings to take a 12-9-1 lead in the series ... Gardner-Webb jumped out to a 20-0 lead last October 10 and held on for a 34-20 win over the 15th-ranked Flames ... GWU has not won in Lynchburg since Hunter Smith's late field goal delivered a 27-24 win on October 21, 2006 ... The two teams have met 15 previous times in the month of October, with GWU holding a 9-6 edge in those games ... The series has one previous meeting on October 29, with Gardner-Webb taking a 21-16 win in Boiling Springs on that date in 2005.
THE HEAD COACHES
Gardner-Webb head coach Carroll McCray (Class of '83) returned to his alma mater in 2013 and has forged an 18-24 record so far in his time in Boiling Springs. Liberty head coach Turner Gill is in his fifth season in charge of the Flames' program and has posted three-straight winning seasons. He took Liberty to the playoffs for the first time in 2014 and is 18-6 for his career in Big South Conference games.
THE LONG BALL
Gardner-Webb has recorded 30 explosive plays so far through eight games, nearly twice as many as the same point last season. GWU had just 17 explosive plays – gains of 20 yards or more – through eight games last season and finished with only 22 explosives in 11 games. The Runnin' Bulldogs had only 10 rushing plays of 20 yards or more in 11 games last season – and have doubled that total with three games remaining in 2016. Of those explosive plays last season, none went longer than 50 yards. This season, GWU has five plays of 50+ yards to its credit.
ZONED FOR SUCCESS
Through eight games in 2016, Gardner-Webb has been efficient offensively inside its opponents' 20-yard line – the red zone. GWU has scored 21 times in its 24 trips (88%), with 16 of those trips resulting in touchdowns (67%). Gardner-Webb started the season in style, scoring five times – with four touchdowns – in five trips to take a 31-6 win at CAA member Elon (9/3). GWU had its best effort against Benedict (10/1), going a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone.
TIGHT LOSSES AT HOME
Gardner-Webb has gone 2-3 in Ernest W. Spangler Stadium, but has aquitted itself well in those three losses – losing by an average of just more than a touchdown per game (8.3 ppg). Those tight results came despite playing two ranked teams in those losses – a 31-24 loss to No. 15 Citadel (now ranked No. 5 and undefeated) and a 17-7 loss to No. 16 Coastal Carolina (FBS transition). GWU held a fourth-quarter lead over The Citadel and led 7-3 at the break against the high-powered Chanticleers. GWU dropped its last home game (Oct. 22) to Kennesaw State by a 47-39 margin, cutting the deficit to one score with more than 12 minutes remaining in the game.
TURF THE REST OF THE WAY
Gardner-Webb will play each of its final 10 games in 2016 on artificial surfaces. The 10 games on artificial turf mark a single-season high for the Runnin' Bulldogs. GWU played its opener on natural grass at Elon (9/3). Spangler Stadium switched to artificial turf prior to the 2014 season.
THE GETER METER
Outside linebacker Chad Geter (6-2, 253, R-Sr.) has garnered high praise already in 2016, building on his truckload of preseason accolades with solid performance in his final college season. The graduate student leads the Big South Conference with 85 total tackles (46 solo) and has contributed 5.5 tackles for loss, one sack and a pass break up. Geter – an All-Big South Conference choice in 2013 and 2015 – has 312 career tackles, 33.0 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks to his credit in Boiling Springs. Geter was named to the 2017 Reese's Senior Bowl Watch List in August and is a 2016 preseason FCS All-America choice. He had 10 hits in the win over Presbyterian (10/8), earning Big South Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors for the first time in 2016 and for the third time in the past two seasons. Geter followed that effort with 13 total tackles (eight solo), 2.0 tackles for loss and a key forced fumble to set up a touchdown vs. No. 16 Coastal Carolina (10/15) and had tied his career-high with 14 stops vs. Kennesaw State.
KHALIL THE THRILL
Gardner-Webb back Khalil Lewis (5-10, 215, R-So.) has made the most of his opportunities so far in 2016. In eight starts this season the speedster has carried 147 times for 817 yards and 12 rushing scores. He ranks No. 1 nationally in rushing touchdowns, No. 4 nationally in rushing yards and No. 16 in yards per game. Lewis had a stretch of six games scoring a rushing touchdowns snapped vs. Coastal Carolina. His was the longest streak since Gardner-Webb's move to the Big South and the fifth-best in Big South history. Lewis is on track to shatter the GWU single-season rushing touchdowns mark (13), set by Shed Harris in 1996. He is the first GWU back to reach double figures in rushing TD since Patrick Hall had 12 in 2009. The former Hilton Head (S.C.) High star was recruited at the FBS level as a prep senior (Buffalo, Florida Atlantic) after rushing for 3,082 yards and 32 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons. He added more than 15 pounds of muscle and lowered his 40-yard dash time to an impressive 4.42 seconds this past offseason.
PRESTIGE FOR PALMETTO STATE DUO
Chad Geter (Irmo, S.C.) and Khalil Lewis (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) earned spots on a prestigious list in their home state earlier on October 25, as the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame selected both as finalists for its 2016 South Carolina Collegiate Player of the Year award. The award, presented by Hale's Jewelers, will be presetned on April 20, 2017 in Greenville, S.C. The 17 men on the list were either born in South Carolina or play collegiate football in the state currently. Geter and Lewis are two of only four student-athletes on this year's finalist list who play football outside of the state – joining Ole Miss defensive tackle D.J. Jones and Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph. Clemson standout and Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson won the award last season and is also a finalist for the 2017 award. Both Geter and Lewis are among NCAA Division I FCS leaders this season, with Geter ranking No. 11 nationally in total tackles per game (10.6) and Lewis leading the nation with 12 rushing scores.
Gardner-Webb has been blessed with a wealth of talent at the tight end position of late, with a GWU man earning a spot on the All-Big South Conference team consecutively since 2012 – Seth Cranfill (2012, 2014) and current starter Mike Estes (2013, 2015). Cranfill earned All-America honors from the Associated Press in 2014 and Estes enters his final season on track to duplicate that feat. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Estes has paced GWU with 26 receptions for 299 yards over the first eight games and now has 107 catches for 1,338 yards and nine scores for his career. With his touchdown catch vs. Benedict (10/1), Estes became the Big South's tight triple crown leader for his career in catches, yardage and touchdowns. He had a career-long catch of 64 yards to set up a field goal vs. Presbyterian (10/8).
DON'T OVERLOOK THE COOK
With Chad Geter garnering a truckload of preseason accolades, one could easily overlook another All-America caliber linebacker at Gardner-Webb. Aaron Cook (6-1, 235, Sr.) roams the BANDIT position opposite Geter in GWU's 3-4 scheme and has more than earned the right to call himself one of the nation's best. A two-time All-Big South Conference selection (2014, 2015), Cook led the team in tackles as a sophomore and totaled 77 more stops last season for a unit that ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense. The Edgefield, S.C., native was also a preseason All-Big South Conference choice by the league's head coaches in July. He had eight hits and an interception at Western Carolina (9/10) and ranks second on the team with 50 total hits so far in 2016.
THIS WEEK AROUND THE BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE
Saturday, October 29
Bucknell at #9 Charleston Southern, 11:45 am (BSN)
Kennesaw State at Monmouth, 1:00 pm (ESPN3)
#18 Coastal Carolina at Presbyterian, 2:00 pm (BSN)
Gardner-Webb at Liberty, 3:30 pm (BSN)
Cornerback Jaylan Foster (6-0, 190, Fr.) has emerged as a true ball hawk in his last five games, earning Big South Conference/Come Ready Nutrition Freshman of the Week honors twice in October and landing on the 2016 STATS FCS Freshman Player of the Year Watch List on October 25. It is the first time since the award's inception – which is open to true freshmen and redshirt freshmen – that a Gardner-Webb newcomer has been included on that list. Foster, who ranks among the best in the FCS in takeaways, has posted 31 total tackles to go with three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six pass break ups. He has done most of his damage since moving into regular action on September 24 at Ohio. In that game, Foster finished with a career-high 10 total tackles (seven solo), three pass break ups and an interception. He had a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown in his first start (10/1) and took an interception back 32 yards in that same game to set up a field goal. Against Presbyterian (10/8), Foster had seven solo hits and 2.0 tackles for loss to earn Big South Conference Freshman of the Week and honorable mention STATS FCS Freshman of the Week honors. He followed with five tackles, an interception and a 51-yard fumble return to set up Gardner-Webb's lone touchdown in a narrow loss to No. 16 Coastal Carolina (10/15). Foster has 143 defensive return yards so far in 2016. He was a Shrine Bowl choice and All-State selection at state powerhouse Byrnes (S.C.) High.
Gardner-Webb returned four starters on its offensive line for 2016 – right tackle Charlie Eudy (6-2, 280, R-So.), left tackle Will Millikan (6-3, 301, So.), center Caleb Smith (6-3, 330, R-Sr.) and left guard David Sutton (6-3, 303, R-Sr.). That quartet, along with right guard Brayden Briggs (6-3, 300, R-Fr.) has helped Gardner-Webb top the 200-yard mark rushing in five of seven games so far. GWU ranks No. 14 nationally in rushing yards per game (257.3) and has scored 16 times on the ground in seven games. With the experienced Sutton sidelined for the Coastal Carolina game, GWU was held to less than 100 yards rushing for the first time since October 24, 2015. Sutton returned for the Kennesaw State game (10/22) and GWU rushed for 279 yards as a team.
Gardner-Webb remains on the road next week to begin November, traveling to face No. 9 Charleston Southern at Noon in the Low Country. The game will air live on the American Sports Network (ASN). Evan Lepler and Renaldo Wynn will provide the call from Charleston. †