By Scott Goode, assistant athletic director for sports information
Outright winner of the Great American Conference, the Bison football team made its fifth-straight NCAA Division II playoff appearance in 2021, one of only three teams in Division II to qualify for the last five tournaments. The Bisons finished with an 11-2 record, the team’s eighth season in the last nine with nine or more wins and its fourth in the last five seasons with 10 or more wins.
The defense recorded its seventh opening-night shutout since Harding restarted the football program in 1959, defeating East Central 28-0 Sept. 4 in Searcy. The last shutout was 20-0 over Southern Arkansas in 2010. The 28-point margin was Harding’s second-largest shutout behind a 39-0 victory over Lane in 1992.
Offensively, senior fullback Cole Chancey became the leading rusher in the history of the Great American Conference, passing Ouachita Baptist’s Kris Oliver, with 3,775 yards.
In the lone loss of the regular season, Southeastern Oklahoma scored the game-winning touchdown and two-point conversion with 46 seconds remaining to take a 32-31 win Sept. 11 in Durant, Oklahoma. The Bisons had trailed 24-10 with 9:04 left in the third quarter but scored three straight touchdowns to take the lead late in the game.
Sophomore Grant Ennis kicked a 51-yard field goal early in the first quarter, the longest by a Harding kicker since Eddy Carmona’s 62-yarder against East Central in 2011.
The Bisons bounced back with a dominating 37-6 victory over Southern Arkansas in Magnolia. Harding had possession of the ball for more than 42 minutes and never punted. The Bisons gained two extra possessions in the game when kicker Cameron Scott recovered two on-side kicks. The offense had 30 first downs. The Bisons last had 30 or more first downs (31) in a 49-7 win against East Central in 2018.
On Sept. 25 the Bisons defeated Ouachita Baptist 38-21 in Searcy. Harding’s 409 rushing yards in this game were the most ever in the 62 meetings between the Bisons and Tigers. The victory snapped Ouachita Baptist’s 30-game Great American Conference winning streak.
Oklahoma Baptist entered the Oct. 2 game in Shawnee, Oklahoma, averaging 41 points but, after a touchdown on their opening drive, were held scoreless by the Bisons who won their third straight 31-7. Oklahoma Baptist rushed for only 3 yards on 16 carries, the fewest allowed by Harding since holding Southeastern Oklahoma to -3 yards in 2018. Chancey led the rushing attack, scoring his 50th career rushing touchdown.
In the 49-10 win over Southern Nazarene Oct. 9 in Searcy, Chancey became Harding’s career rushing leader, breaking the record held by Alan “Snake” Dixon since 1973. The win extended Harding’s winning streak to four games. It was the team’s 11th straight home win and Southern Nazarene’s 10th straight road loss. Sixteen different Harding players carried the ball at least once in the game.
Harding’s fifth-straight victory Oct. 16 also was Harding’s fourth-straight road victory over Henderson State dating to 2014 with the 46-21 win in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Chancey rushed for 231 yards, the fifth-highest single-game total in program history. Cade Pugh had an interception and a fumble recovery in the game, becoming the first Harding player with both in one game since Jacory Nichols in 2019.
Defeating Arkansas-Monticello 64-7 Oct. 23 in Searcy, Harding scored seven rushing touchdowns, a defensive touchdown and a special teams touchdown in its highest scoring effort since a 70-42 victory at Southern Arkansas in 2015. Six different players scored a rushing touchdown as the team ran its winning streak to six games.
The Bisons’ final touchdown came on a Cooper Carroll interception on the goal line. He returned it 100 yards, becoming only the second Bison with a 100-yard interception return and the first since Bershard Tillman against Northeastern State in 1999.
Travelling next to Alva, Oklahoma, where the team defeated Northwestern Oklahoma 73-14, the Bisons rushed for a school-record 685 yards and 10 touchdowns — the most points scored and the most total yards ever by Harding in a road game.
It was the most rushing yards ever in a GAC game and the most in an NCAA Division II game since Colorado Mesa rushed for 708 yards against New Mexico Highlands in 2016.
The team had three freshmen – Jhalen Spicer, Blake Delacruz and Will Fitzhugh – all rush for more than 100 yards. It was only the third time the Bisons had three players eclipse 100 yards in the same game.
The eighth-straight victory was a 55-7 win over Southwestern Oklahoma on Senior Day Nov. 6 in Searcy. Utilizing 17 different rushers to gain 459 yards and score seven touchdowns, it was the Bisons’ third consecutive game with 50 or more points.
The Bisons held Southwestern to 0-for-11 on third downs. The last time Harding held an opponent without a third-down conversion was in a 58-0 victory over Southern Nazarene in 2014, when the Crimson Storm was 0-for-10 on third downs.
The Bisons had 506 total yards and held Southwestern to only 24 rushing yards on 21 carries.
In the final regular season contest, the team scored on its first four possessions of the second half to defeat Arkansas Tech 31-0 Nov. 13 in Russellville and win its ninth consecutive game, second outright GAC championship and first since 2016. It was Paul Simmons’ 50th game as Harding’s head coach.
Chancey became the first Bison to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season three times and broke Park Parish’s single-season rushing touchdown record of 21 touchdowns in 2016.
Arkansas Tech had eight possessions in the game with five ending in punts, one on downs, one on a missed field goal and one on an interception by Oric Walker Jr.
Playing only its second NCAA Division II playoff game at home Nov. 20, Harding set a school record by rushing 90 times on 93 plays and defeated Washburn 30-14. Chancey set a school record with 41 carries, breaking the record of 40 set by Mike Vanlandingham in 1978.
The team rushed for 419 yards, its sixth time to go over 400 for the season, and limited Washburn to -2 rushing yards on only eight carries. Washburn’s leading rusher had 3 yards.
The season came to an end in the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs in Searcy. Harding outgained Northwest Missouri State 274-255 and held the Bearcats to only 24 rushing yards in the 28-9 loss.
The Bisons had almost 38 minutes of possession and rushed for 245 yards, 117 of them on Chancey’s 29 carries. Chancey concluded his career with a school-record 5,114 rushing yards.
For the seventh time since 2012, the Bison football team finished the season ranked in the American Football Coaches’ Association Top 25. The 2021 team landed 10th in the final poll, its third time to finish in the top 10. Harding finished at No. 7 in the D2Football.com poll.