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Gaither, Gardner-Webb Stun Eastern Kentucky 52-41 in Playoff Debut

The Bulldogs weren’t about to see their season come to an end on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Gardner Webb at Coastal Carolina David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night, the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs did not look like a team making its first playoff appearance, on the road nonetheless. On their initial drive they marched right down the field and socked Eastern Kentucky in the mouth with a touchdown. The Colonels answered but every time they did, the Bulldogs just hit right back. Eventually EKU simply couldn’t keep pace anymore and when the dust settled, Gardner-Webb had pulled off a high-scoring shocker.

Narii Gaither opened up the scoring with a 28-yard touchdown run that came on the heels of a nine-play drive. Quarterback Bailey Fisher completed his first five pass attempts on the drive and the EKU crowd fell silent as the Bulldogs took a 7-0 lead.

On the other side, Parker McKinney is one of the best quarterbacks the FCS has to offer and he would not let the Bulldogs get too far ahead. The Colonels shot back when McKinney hit Jaden Smith for a 27-yard strike that tied things up,

After trading punts, Fisher did it again, leading the Bulldogs down the field. He called his own number and ran in from 10 yards out to once again give Gardner-Webb a seven-point advantage. The visitors were making a statement; they didn’t want their first playoff game to also be their last this year.

While the Bulldogs were finding their big plays on the ground, Eastern Kentucky was finding theirs through the air. McKinney got his second touchdown of the night with a big 69-yard pass to Cornelius McCoy. McCoy took it the distance and tied the game back up at 14 all.

Jayden Brown gave Gardner-Webb excellent field position with a 50-yard kickoff return and it only took Fisher two plays to get the lead back once more. On the final play of the opening quarter, Gaither broke loose for a 42-yard touchdown run. In just one quarter of play, the Bulldogs offense put up 21 points and Gaither already had over 100 yards.

The second period began with both teams trading field goals. With the score sitting at 24-17, McKinney orchestrated another scoring drive. He delivered Smith his second touchdown with a nine-yard pass to the end zone with 6:04 to go until halftime.

The Bulldogs refused to give in and again they rumbled down the field. Gaither continued to tear up the turf but it was Brown that gave them the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. His 16-yard TD run made it 31-24 and, while EKU did add three before half, Gardner-Webb was up at the break.

Both defenses were struggling but it was that of the Bulldogs that finally stepped up in the third quarter. While they didn’t allow any scoring from the Colonels, Fisher and the offense found the end zone three more times to pull ahead by a wide margin. TJ Luther caught a touchdown before Fisher himself ran for two more. When the fourth frame began, Gardner-Webb was up 52-27.

EKU was gassed and, despite getting a late touchdown, they just couldn’t stay afloat. Gaither finished his career night with an outstanding 245 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. It was the second-most rush yards by a player in a single game in program history. Fisher ran for three touchdowns and in total, Gardner-Webb gashed the Colonels for 407 yards on the ground, a season best.

McKinney ended the game with five touchdowns and 454 yards passing but even numbers like that weren’t enough to keep pace. The EKU defense gave up 32 first downs and forced no turnovers.

Gardner-Webb’s season will continue next weekend with another road trip, this time to take on 5-seed William & Mary.