JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - Wins against Wingate (4-5, 3-3 South Atlantic Conference) have been hard to come by of late for No. 21 Carson-Newman (8-2, 4-2 SAC). The Eagles have lost in three straight seasons to the Bulldogs, only the second time that has happened in regular season games to a Ken Sparks-coached club.
"The only thing about that is we haven't played well enough to win," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "We lost in overtime on a fumble. Last year we go for it on fourth and goal from the one and didn't make it. I remember those two very vividly."
The Eagles will try to reverse that trend Saturday when they travel to Irwin Belk Stadium for their regular season finale. Elon is the only other team to beat C-N three straight seasons, accomplishing the feat from 1984-1986. No team has defeated the Eagles four consecutive times in the regular season with Sparks as head coach. Carson-Newman won a shootout with the Phoenix in 1987 48-35 to halt that losing streak.
However, not only is Wingate's three-game winning streak in the series on the line, so is a playoff berth for Carson-Newman. The Eagles, who come off a 52-31 win over then No. 21 Newberry on senior day, are ranked fourth in Super Region II and stand poised to enter the playoffs for a second consecutive season and its 25th overall.
"We all expected it to come down to the last game of the year and have something to play for," Sparks said. "We're blessed for that. Every day now has so much significance. It can be a day where good things happen, or we can go through the motions and set ourselves up for failure."
Wingate is led by senior quarterback Robbie Nallenweg. The 6-5, 230 pound senior ranks third in the nation in completion percentage (71 percent) and fifth in the nation in completions per game (28). On top of that, Nallenweg is in the top 30 nationally in passing yards, passing efficiency and passing yards per game. His 20 touchdowns are tied for the lead in the league with Tusculum's Bo Cordell and Mars Hill's Trent Miller.
"They do a great job of taking what you give them," Sparks said. "If you're a half man away, Nallenweg is going to get the ball to them. They've reloaded pretty well. He's a big guy who gets the ball out of his hands very quickly, so they're very difficult to stop."
The Bulldogs have replaced Harlon Hill candidate Chris Bowden at wide receiver with a solid cadre of receivers. Jordan Berry leads the team in receiving yards with 59 a game, while it's Patrick Derenda who has the lead for catches with 40 this year.
The Eagles will try to get pressure on a Bulldog passing game that's allowed 35 sacks this season. The Eagles have only one sack in the last two weeks.
However, where the Eagles have lacked in quarterback takedowns, C-N has made up for it in general defensive madness. Carson-Newman forced five turnovers against Newberry – three picks, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. It marked the seventh game this season where the Eagles had forced three or more turnovers.
Conversely, Carson-Newman's offense has ball care on its mind this week. Eagle tailbacks lost two fumbles against the Wolves, one of which was returned for a touchdown – the first time a team had scooped and scored on the Eagles since Presbyterian in 2005.
Quarterback De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga) and tailbacks Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.), Tyron Douglas (Clover, S.C.) and Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) all have more than 600 yards rushing and eight touchdowns this season.
Thomas is the SAC's leader and 20th in the nation for rushing touchdowns with his 13.
The Eagles and Bulldogs kickoff at 1:30 p.m. Coverage on the Eagle Sports Network starts at 12:30 with the Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and online at cneagles.com/live.