MARS HILL, N.C. — Ken Sparks' quest for 300 wins will have to continue next season as the Carson-Newman College football team dropped a heartbreaker to No. 23-ranked Mars Hill 23-20 at Mears Stadium Saturday.
The Eagles complete an injury-depleted season with a 5-6 overall record and a 3-4 South Atlantic Conference record. It is the first losing season record posted by a Sparks-coached team in his 32-year stint at C-N and only the second losing SAC mark.
The Lions, at 8-2 and 6-1 in the SAC, are primed for their first NCAA Division II playoff run in school history and their first conference title since 1985. Lenoir-Rhyne, at 7-3 overall and 6-1 in the conference will share the title, though Mars Hill's No. 2 region ranking should secure it a playoff spot, No. 2 seed and first-round bye when the bracket is announced Sunday afternoon.
There was some good history made for the Eagles in the game. Senior running back Nate Inman, in his final game in the Orange and Blue, rushed 14 times for 99 yards, giving him a career-best 1,103 yards for the season and 3,003 yards for his career. Inman is only the eighth C-N player to cross the 3,000-yard mark.
The Eagles were behind early thanks to a special teams miscue. A snap flew high over freshman punter Charlie Rhea's (Norcross, Ga.) head, giving Mars Hill a safety in the opening quarter.
A C-N turnover led to the Lions first touchdown. A fumble from junior quarterback Brandon Haywood (Rockmart, Ga.) inside the Mars Hill red zone to open the second quarter caused a 14-point swing in the Lions' favor.
Senior running back Jonas Randolph carried the ball for seven of the next eight plays for the Lions, culminating the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Randolph rushed 33 times for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the game and has 17 touchdowns and 1,970 yards on the season, the highest yardage total in NCAA Division II.
C-N answered back with a scoring drive of its own. Haywood completed a 17-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Anthony Eubanks (Pendleton, S.C.) on a third down to keep the chains moving and return to Mars Hill territory. Another big third down pass, this time on third-and-14 on the Lions 18 yard-line to Eubanks set up a first-and-goal at the two. Inman took it the rest of the way on the next play to put the score at 9-7.
The Eagles took the lead on their next possession, with freshman Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) providing the key play, a 46-yard run on the drive. Inman took it another 17 yards to the one. Haywood punched it in to make the score 14-9 Carson-Newman. Hibbett rushed 16 times for 107 yards in his first college start.
With less than three minutes to go in the half, Mars Hill retook the lead for good., Quarterback Jon Richt completed a 22-yard pass to Dimitri Holmes on fourth down to keep the drive alive. On the next play Randolph raced into the end zone from 15 yards out.
Mars Hill took the opening possession of the second half down for a touchdown. Randolph again did most of the work, scoring an 18-yard touchdown to take a 23-14 lead.
The Eagles were finally able to pull within a score in the final minutes of the game. Inman took the ball to Mars Hill's 18 on a 27-yard run. Hibbett finished off the drive with an 8-yard TD run.
A missed extra point, followed by a failed onside kick allowed Mars Hill to end the game in victory formation.
Junior linebacker Larry Lumpkin (Grand Bay, Ala.) led C-N with 11 tackles, two for a loss. Junior free safety Issac Kinley (Johnson City, Tenn.) had 10 tackles. Mars Hilll had four players record double-digit tackles, with Rudy Cabral picking up 16, Troy Harris with 15 and Cnad Prioleau and Mam Nyang each recording 14 apiece.