Eagles Welcome Newberry in SAC Opener Saturday
1989 Championship Reunion: Carson-Newman will
honor its 1989 NAIA National Championship team on Saturday with a
20-year reunion. The '89 team closed out a decade of championships
with a 34-20 win over Emporia State in the Champion Bowl. The
Eagles went 12-1, completing a stretch of four-straight
championship game appearances, with three titles. The '89 squad
included All-Americans Brent Collins, Robert Hardy, Joe Fishback,
David Pool, and Kelly Rasnic. Registration for the reunion will
begin at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday morning at the Ken Sparks Athletic
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. -- The Carson-Newman football team begins its quest for a 21st South Atlantic Conference title on Saturday afternoon when it takes the field against Newberry to open conference play.
The Eagles and the scarlet and gray are scheduled to kickoff at 1 p.m. at Burke-Tarr Stadium.
C-N head coach Ken Sparks said he and his team are focused on a dangerous Newberry squad and not the number of conference championships within their reach.
"I'm not worried about the 21st (SAC championship)," Sparks said. "I'm worried about Newberry. They are a very, very talented football team. I'd say they are one of the top two or three talented teams in the conference. They've got most everybody back from last year. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The Eagles (2-2) don't have to look far back to remember just how dangerous Newberry can be. The scarlet and gray defeated C-N 27-21 in overtime last season.
C-N was its own worst enemy in the loss as it committed four turnovers and drove inside the Newberry 35-yard line on seven occasions and came away without scoring any points.
"That's pretty mind boggling," Sparks said. "I don't think we showed up to play over there last year like we wanted to."
Newberry, the No. 16 team in the latest D2Football.com Media Poll, enters the contest with a 2-1 record, including a win over perennial Division II power Valdosta State.
The scarlet and gray have won two out of the last three meetings against the Eagles and will be looking to make it two straight behind the leadership of senior quarterback Brandon Gantt (Lexington, S.C.).
With Gantt under center, Newberry leads the conference in total offense as it averages 433 yards per game. Gantt has accounted for a lot of Newberry's success by completing 65.7 percent of his passes and averaging 248.3 passing yards per game.
Newberry is also at or near the top of the conference in several other statistical categories, including pass offense (second), pass defense (second), turnover margin (third), punt return average (first), pass efficiency (second) and time of possession (first).
"On paper they are scary," Sparks said. "They are very balanced and do a good job. We will need to continue to play Carson-Newman football. I'm excited about lining up on Saturday and seeing what we can get done."
A key to Saturday's matchup will be field position. With Newberry having the No. 1 punt returner in the SAC in Antonio Patton (16.9 yards per return), Eagles junior punter Chris Jones (Rome, Ga.) will need to have another performance like the one he had last week against UNC Pembroke.
Jones earned SAC Special Teams Player of the Week after averaging 46.2 yards on five punts against the Braves. He limited UNC Pembroke's return game to just 10 yards on the day.
"He is big time," Sparks said. "Chris had two punts with a five-second hang time. He had a 5.13 and a 5.07. When you start talking about the five flat in hang time in a game, that's unheard of."
"I've never seen one before Saturday and I saw two. When you kick it that high, it gives coverage time to get there. He had a very special day on Saturday, and I hope he can continue to do that."
The Eagles are coming off their best outing of the season as they took down UNC Pembroke, 35-22, last Saturday. The win snapped a 10-game Braves winning streak.
C-N broke the 300-yard plateau on the ground for a third straight week, rushing for 322 yards. The Eagles are averaging 349 rushing yards per game in their last three contests and are fourth in the nation in rushing offense with a 288.8 yards per game average.
The return of preseason first team All-SAC running back Buck Wakefield (Drummonds, Tenn.) gave the Eagles an added dimension in the backfield that they had missed the first three weeks of the season.
Wakefield rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns and also caught three passes for 47 yards to lead C-N past UNC-Pembroke.
"(Wakefield) made some plays Saturday," Sparks said. "Of course, the running back is only as good as the other 10 guys, but he does add a different dimension. There is no question about that. He gives us another level of speed that we are missing sometimes. It is certainly a blessing to have him back.'
Sparks gives a lot of the credit to C-N's resurgent running game to the Eagle offensive line. The unit has been shuffled every game this season due to injuries but has consistently showed improvement.
"I don't think it's been the same starting unit all year," Sparks said. "That makes it tough when you are moving from one position to the other. When you have to learn a whole new setup every week, it makes it a little tougher."