Sparks enters with 296 wins; Bears come in off win vs. C-N for first time since 1978
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – The 17th-ranked Carson-Newman Eagles open their 32nd South Atlantic Conference season under head coach Ken Sparks on Saturday when they travel to face Lenoir-Rhyne University.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Moretz Stadium in Hickory, N.C.
Two of college football's longer streaks ended either during, or as a result, of the 2010 meeting between the Eagles and Bears.
Lenoir-Rhyne (1-1) ended a 30-game losing streak with a 52-14 win last November in Jefferson City, and in the process, probably knocked the Eagles out of its perennial top spot in the SAC Preseason Coaches' Poll. It was the first time L-R had beaten C-N since 1978.
However, two games into 2011, Carson-Newman (2-0) is the only remaining SAC unbeaten and the only school in this week's Division II poll.
After a 56-7 win a week ago against Fayetteville State, the Eagles are again heading into conference play with momentum, but lately it has been L-R with the edge in the series.
"It's a different program (at L-R)," Sparks said. "We made some plays late in 2009 to survive, but they had our number for four quarters last season. Coach (Fred) Goldsmith turned the program around, and now they've become one of the nation's top rushing teams and a conference favorite."
Former L-R head coach Fred Goldsmith turned the Bears' into a SAC title contender before retiring in the offseason, first-year head coach Mike Houston facing the Eagles for the first time on Saturday.
L-R comes in off a 28-10 loss to Division-I Davidson last Saturday after a season-opening win at Concord.
Both defenses will be under the gun to handle the nation's top two rushing offenses from last season. The Bears led the nation at just over 310 yards per game. The Eagles were second nationally after leading the nation in 2008 and 2009.
However, its been the passing game which has helped the Eagles flourish to open the season.
After a year in which Carson-Newman completed fewer than 50 percent of its pass attempts, sophomore quarterback Johnny Foster (Roebuck, S.C.) has completed 9-of-11 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown to start the season. His favorite target has become C-N's "do-everything" sophomore Jason Brown (Plant City, Fla.). Brown has three catches for 80 yards and a 41-yard TD run in the Eagles first two games. He also led a TD drive at quarterback in each game.
"We've made a few plays in the passing game to this point, but we still have a long way to go," Sparks said. "
Lost in the Eagles 50.5 points per game through the season's first two games, has been back-to-back dominant performances by an emerging Eagle defense. The unit is surrendering only 215 yards per game and has yet to allow a TD drive to cross midfield in the first half.
It will face a different test Saturday with the Bears' flexbone option.
"We've been up against spread teams the last two weeks," Sparks said. "Their option will be an adjustment for us, but we see the option in camp and in practice, so there is some familiarity."
Newcomers Deshon Collins (Birmingham, Ala.) and Luis Doray (Lake Worth, Fla.) have given the Eagles depth and playmaking inside. Both forced turnovers in the opener. Last week it was true freshman William Alderman (Winston-Salem, N.C.) that led the Eagles with 11 tackles.
Sparks credits his coaching staff and veterans with bringing the pieces together as a unit.
"We've got great coaching and leadership on the defensive side," Sparks said. "Seniors like Byron Bell, Ryan Helton, Zeke Andrews, and some quality coaches, have helped that unit gel early. We're showing some maturity, but we've got to keep improving on the process."
Lenoir-Rhyne comes in averaging 232 yards per game on the ground, but is finding offensive balance with an explosive passing game. Quarterbacks Reuben Hayes and Major Herren have combined to complete 23-of-41 passes for 310 yards and three TDs. Hayes came on to relieve Herren last week against Davidson and get the Bears in the end zone.
L-R held Concord, its only D-II opponent, to 182 total yards in its opener.
Radio: Carson-Newman's Saturday night game at Lenoir-Rhyne will be broadcast on the Eagle Radio Network beginning at 6:30 p.m. The Flagship Station for Carson-Newman Football, WRJZ-AM 620 (Knoxviile) and WPFT-FM 106.3 (Sevierville) will carry the broadcast.
Next Game: Carson-Newman hosts Newberry College in its South Atlantic Conference opener next Saturday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. For tickets, call (865) 471-3396.