JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (3-2, 2-2 SAC) steps out of conference to face a 1-5 North Greenville team that Eagle head coach Ken Sparks indicates may be prepared to turn the corner.
The Eagles and Crusaders kick it off for C-N's homecoming at 3 p.m. at Burke-Tarr Stadium.
North Greenville started out the season 0-5 against stellar competition. The Crusaders opened the year playing a nationally ranked Albany State team before taking on FCS opponent Tennessee Tech, preseason SAC favorite Lenoir-Rhyne and current SAC leader Mars Hill. However, North Greenville turned it around last week with a 27-17 win over Newberry at home.
"They are just now starting to get comfortable with the schemes of the offense and defense (following a coaching change)," Sparks said. "A lot of them we remember from when they went all the way to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. You can see the coaching is starting to take effect and their kids are starting to respond to it."
"Anytime somebody beats someone by two touchdowns who beat you by a bunch of touchdowns, it better get your attention."
Carson-Newman comes in to the contest off of its best defensive performance of the season in a 42-7 victory over Catawba. The Eagles hadn't held an opponent under 400 yards of total offense all season, but the Eagle defense only stayed on the field for 47 plays, limiting the Indians to 24 yards rushing and 111 yards passing.
The defense was so dominant that Jonathan Sites (Hendersonville, Tenn.) led the team in tackles with just six.
"It was a step up for us in terms of responding and playing for quarters," Sparks said. "It was a great accomplishment to play for four instead of one or two. We've been excited about our kids and their hearts. The secret's going to be, do we continue going in the right direction with the scoreboard (inside us)."
C-N All-SAC center Kevin Day (Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.) knows the Eagles cannot be satiated with the Catawba win to put them a game above .500.
"To be satisfied by that would sicken me," Day said. "If I catch an idea that someone's satisfied by that because that's a pretty average record. No one came here to be average, we came here to win."
To win against North Greenville will take a fast start. The Crusaders led for the first time this year at the end of the first quarter against Newberry. Outside of the game with the Wolves, NGU has been outscored 49-10 in the first frame.
The Eagles have been dominant in the first quarter to the tune of a 64-14 advantage. The only time Carson-Newman failed to score on its first possession was the Wingate game when senior quarterback Brandon Haywood (Rockmart, Ga.) fumbled away the first play from scrimmage.
Sites said a fast start can help keep an athletic Crusader club at bay.
"They're big and talented," Sites said. "But we can't look at it as a pushover 1-5 team. They are a lot better than what their record shows. We have to be focused, especially coming off that Catawba win, we've got to keep building."
The Crusaders feature an offensive line that averages 6-2, 293 pounds and four upperclassmen including seniors at left tackle and guard in Chance Hudson and Sterling Ward.
Freddie Martino leads the receiving corps with 33 catches for 311 yards. While he hasn't found the end zone through the air, the junior has cashed in on a couple rushing touchdowns.
The Eagles second leading tackler Jaycob Coleman (Norton, Va.) said Carson-Newman will have to be exceptionally sound defensively.
"They can hit a big play at any moment because the offense is surrounded by a lot of smoke and mirrors," Coleman said. "You have to read your keys and play your position."
The contest could be a big day for the Eagles offense. North Greenville ranks 145 out of 158 Division II teams in rush defense – the Crusaders give up 233.5 yards on the ground a game.
Carson-Newman features three backs who rank in the top 10 in the SAC for rushing yards/game. Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.) is second and one of two rushers to average more than 100 yards/game in the league.
Haywood leads the league in scoring with seven rushing touchdowns to go with his two through the air.
The game isn't only homecoming for Carson-Newman, Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri and Jefferson City Mayor Mark Potts both declared October 13 to be "Ken Sparks Day," an honor that the head coach is grateful for.
"What a privilege to be a citizen in the place that I've been a citizen for so long," Sparks said. "For us as a coaching staff to raise our families here – it's a very special place. To have lived here for 30 plus years… to be surrounded by organizations and people that have impacted your life, it's been quite a journey and an absolute blessing."
Coverage for the Eagles homecoming game begins at 2 p.m. on the Coca-Cola Eagle Sports Network with the Farm Bureau Tailgate Show. Fans can listen over the air on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville). The game is available for viewing online at cneagles.com.