CAMBRIDGE CITY, Ind. — Nick Cupp found Brandon Stephens early. Ben Bertsch found the end zone late.
In between, Lincoln found a way to finally slow a potent Union County offense — and the Golden Eagles find themselves still in the thick of the Tri-Eastern Conference football race.
Bertsch rushed for four touchdowns, all in the second half, as Lincoln rallied from a two-score deficit to knock off the visiting Patriots 40-26 Friday night.
“At halftime we had to gain confidence,” said Bertsch, whose 170 yards led a game that featured three rushers going above 100 yards. “They scored right at the beginning of the second half, and like coach said, we would have folded a couple of years ago. I think it speaks volumes of the leadership on our team.”
Nevada Lakes gave Union County a 26-15 lead with 7:40 to play in the third quarter. But, after that, it was all Bertsch.
The Lincoln senior scored on runs of 5, 10 and 34 yards before his 1-yard plunge with less than 2 minutes to play put the game away.
The victory helped the Golden Eagles rebound from their first TEC loss of the season, 40-13 last week to Winchester at Ball State.
“Union County was prepared. They were scrappy. They were aggressive,” said Lincoln coach Phil Renforth. “They took some of the running stuff away from us in the first half.”
What the Patriots didn’t take away — and neither did a thumb injury suffered last week to his throwing hand — was precision passing from Cupp.
The junior practiced only one day this week, but it didn’t stop him from effectively running the Lincoln offense.
Cupp found Stephens for a 19-yard touchdown for the game’s first score, then connected with the senior on another scoring strike, this one 65 yards, in the second quarter.
“It really felt good just to get back on the field,” Cupp said. “I feel like we played a great game. I struggled through the pain at times, but I completed passes whenever we needed it. I just feel like we came out to play as a family.”
The Patriots took a 20-15 lead into halftime after three first-half rushing touchdowns by Cameron Donovan.
The UC sophomore finished with 121 rushing yards, leading a multi-faceted offense that also saw Dylan Dearth grind out 100-plus yards on the ground.
Bertsch’s first touchdown pulled Lincoln within 26-21 heading into the fourth quarter. The Lincoln defense forced a turnover on downs to get the ball back, and Bertsch gave the Golden Eagles a 27-26 advantage with 8:15 left.
The Golden Eagles then recovered a fumble on the first play of the ensuing series, and Bertsch broke for 34 yards and a score on the next snap.
“There at the end we had a couple costly turnovers,” said UC coach Rusty Hensley. “Once again this week we were right there in the hunt.
“We had two drives that stalled out that really hurt us, a couple penalties that really hurt us. Until we clean those up, it’s going to be tough to get over the hump and get the ‘W.’ I’m very proud of our guys and the fact they fought hard to the end.”
Cupp finished with seven completions for 181 yards. Stephens had 74 yards receiving, while Justin Black added two grabs for 44 yards.
“He’s played well for us all year,” Renforth said of Cupp. “I thought he played exceptionally well tonight, especially in some situations where we needed to throw the ball and they knew we needed to throw the ball, and we still made completions.”
Bertsch, Chase Southerland and Lucian Cornett also made catches for Lincoln. Cupp found Black for a two-point conversion in the first half, Brock Drew kicked a pair of extra points for the Golden Eagles and Donovan hauled in a two-point conversion from Union County quarterback Caleb Greene.
Lincoln’s defense shut out the Patriots over the final 19 minutes. The Golden Eagles had to do that without leading tackler Chase Hokey, who left early in the first quarter after an injury.
“We have to keep working hard. Keep our heads up and keep working hard,” Hensley said.
Union County (1-5, 0-4) plays host next Friday to TEC leader Northeastern, while Lincoln (3-3, 3-1) is at Union City.
“I thought it was a great team win tonight,” Renforth said. “I thought we played much better defensively in the second half. We got after the ball a little bit better. We created a couple of turnovers late in the game when we really needed them to give us an opportunity to catch up.
“These kids are believing. … We just keep after it and I thought they did a great job just not panicking when we got behind.”
Josh Chapin: (765) 973-4463 email@example.com or twitter.com/JoshChapinPI
GOLDEN EAGLES 40, PATRIOTS 26
Union County 8 12 6 0 — 26
Lincoln 7 8 6 19 — 40
LIN-Brandon Stephens 19 pass from Nick Cupp, 7:28 (Brock Drew)
UC-Cameron Donovan 12 run, 0:54 (Donovan pass from Caleb Greene)
LIN-Stephens 65 pass from Cupp, 7:48 (Justin Black pass from Cupp)
UC-Donovan 12 run, 3:54 (pass failed)
UC-Donovan 2 run, 0:21 (pass failed)
UC-Nevada Lakes 1 run, 7:40 (pass failed)
LIN-Ben Bertsch 5 run, 3:45 (pass failed)
LIN-Bertsch 10 run, 8:15 (pass failed)
LIN-Bertsch 34 run, 7:51 (kick failed)
LIN-Bertsch 1 run, 1:44 (Drew kick)
RUSHING-UC: Dearth 22-103, Donovan 13-121, Lakes 10-33, Greene 8-23; LIN: Bertsch 26-170, Lucian Cornett 1-4, Cupp 4-9.
PASSING-UC: Greene 3-11-47-0; LIN: Cupp 7-11-181-2.
RECEIVING-UC: Lakes 1-25, Donovan 2-22; LIN: Black 2-44, Chase Southerland 1-12, Stephens 2-74, Bertsch 1-22, Cornett 1-19.