JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – It would be tough to find a scenario where things could have gone worse for No. 18 Carson-Newman (10-2) when the Eagles travelled to Hickory, N.C. for their opening game of November with No. 14 Lenoir-Rhyne (10-1).
L-R trounced C-N Nov. 2, 37-3, holding the Eagles to season lows for rushing yards (92), total offense (155), points (three) and first downs (10). The game marked the first time this century the Eagles were held to less than 100 yards rushing and the fourth time since 1996 that C-N was held without an offensive touchdown.
Now the Eagles get a second chance against L-R when they make a second trek to Hickory for a second round playoff game with the Bears; kickoff's at noon.
"It's a blessing to be in the playoffs first of all," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "And it's even more of a blessing to get to try to do something a whole lot better than we did the first time. That's called grace."
The Eagles defeated Lenoir-Rhyne last season in the second round of the NCAA playoffs 38-35. However, this year, the Eagles must contend with a South Atlantic Conference-best 11 all-conference picks for L-R.
The Bears are led by the league's defensive player of the year and safety Michael Green, the spearhead of a defense that allows a SAC-best 13.8 points per game and 87 rushing yards per contest.
"They do a lot of things that are exceptional," Sparks said. "We have a great challenge on our hands because they beat us in all three phases of the game the first time we played. We don't talk much about the past, but I think all of us when that first game was over, sure did want to play it again."
That's not to say the Bears aren't trying to overcome challenges. Starting quarterback Mile Freeman went down with an injury in the first game with the Eagles. In his stead, Treverrius Jones has run the option-based offense with aplomb. Under the Jones-helmed offense, the Bears are averaging 55 points per game.
"He started the game against us the first game we played them last year," Sparks said. "He's a big talented athlete and a very capable football player. As best I can tell, he's really executing the offense for them."
The Eagles have scored no fewer than 37 points since the loss to Lenoir-Rhyne. Offensively, the Eagles sit on the cusp of several milestones. Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.) needs one more yard for a second consecutive 1,000-yard season rushing. He can become just the third player in Carson-Newman history with back-to-back rushing seasons and the fourth with two, 1,000-yard seasons in his C-N career.
This Carson-Newman team can also become the second with multiple 1,000-yard rushers in a single year. Tyron Douglas (Clover, S.C.) has 923 yards on the ground, De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) has 904 and Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) follows with 791.
Thomas is also three touchdowns away from matching the school record for rushing touchdowns in a single season (22). Douglas needs 92 rushing yards to become the 10th player at C-N with 3,000 yards rushing in his career.
However, it's not progress toward records that Sparks is looking for, he just wants the Eagles to take steps forward mentally.
"We're banged up physically, but mentally, we've made that progress we've been looking for," Sparks said. "We've taken steps forward the last four weeks. Let's get off the roller coaster mentally, quit doing stinkin' thinkin' and go out and play right."
Kickoff from Moretz Stadium is set for noon. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network begins at 11 a.m. on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and online at cneagles.com/live.