SALISBURY, N.C. – No. 19 Carson-Newman (3-1, 2-0 South Atlantic Conference) eked out a 35-33 road win over a Catawba (2-2, 1-1 SAC) club that was receiving votes in the latest AFCA coaches poll Saturday afternoon at Shuford Stadium.
"It took a gutsy bunch of kids to get this win," Sparks said. "We were so self destructive with big mistakes and penalties. We made it as hard as we could on ourselves and still won this ballgame. It was a great team victory for us. We needed this one."
C-N had lost four straight years in week four before Saturday's win over the Indians. The Eagles gave up a season high 506 yards of total offense. However, for the fourth straight week, the Eagles rolled up more than 460 yards of offense.
Thomas turned in a stellar performance with 104 yards and four scores on the ground. He also completed 11-of-16 passes for 173 yards and the touchdown pass to Ward.
The junior from Milledgeville, Ga. moved into the top 10 on Carson-Newman's all-time rushing touchdowns list. He has 29 touchdowns for his career, which ties him for ninth on the all-time list with Nate Inman.
Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) posted his third straight 100-yard rushing performance with 118 yards on 21 carries. The game was Carson-Newman's first with multiple 100-yard rushers since three Eagles crested the century mark in the Eagles' regular season finale in 2013 against Wingate.
Carson-Newman got the game started with a highly methodical drive. The Eagles plundered a 14-play, 70-yard drive that wrapped up with a three-yard Thomas option keeper over the left side of the line.
The Eagles forced Catawba to punt on its first drive before taking the next possession to the house on a Thomas 14-yard run around right tackle for six.
Catawba countered after Randall Freeman (Ooltewah, Tenn.) coughed up a fumble. The Indians used the short field to go 51 yards in six plays. Carlos Tarrats snagged his fifth touchdown catch on a 22-yard post pattern.
"I think we'll continue to get better as this thing goes along, maybe week five is the week where we make major improvements," Sparks said. "But I'm very thankful for this victory and I thank the Lord for us."
The Eagles rounded out their first half scoring with a 15-play 75-yard drive that saw Thomas plunge in from a yard out on a one-yard QB sneak.
The Indians would get back within a score on a Sheehan sneak and had a chance to knot the game prior to the half, but a Chad Hollandsworth 35-yard field goal sailed wide left in the waning moments of the half.
C-N and Catawba traded scores through the third quarter. The Eagles held a tenuous 28-20 lead heading to the fourth. But Catawba finished out a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a Cary Littlejohn run that bounced outside to the right to pull the Indians within two.
"Catawba took advantage of our mistakes and misalignments," Sparks said. "We've still got some youngsters who still don't fully understand how this thing works, but I'm hopeful that they'll come along."
Catawba went for two, but Sheehan's pass to Tyler Hamilton was complete in the back of the end zone, but Hamilton's heels were out of bounds. Catawba would get a chance to get on top after the Eagles went three-and-out on their ensuing possession.
"The turning point was when our defense kept them out of the end zone on back-to-back possessions," Sparks said. "TraShaun's TD catch was huge, but the defense gave us a chance to keep the doggone thing in a position where we could win it."
The Indians drove down to C-N's 41 on their next possession. However, an incomplete pass and a failed fake punt to Gabe Evans gave the ball back to the Eagles. C-N took four plays to find the end zone on Ward's 30-yard TD catch.
Catawba added a six-yard TD to Gary Williams with 2:53 left in the game, but the Eagles got the ball back and were able to salt out the clock.
"We're humble and hungry after this three-game set," Sparks said. "There's a lot that we've done wrong over that time, but there's a lot of room for growth too."
The win concludes a three-game stretch away from Burke-Tarr Stadium. Sheehan completed 30-of-45 passes for 387 yards for the Indians. Sha'Heem Stupart led the Eagles defense in his first start with 10 tackles. William Alderman (Brooksville, Fla.) added six tackles and a sack.
The Eagles are back home to open up October against Mars Hill. The contest has been dubbed a Pink Out in honor of breast cancer awareness and Take A Kid to The Game Day. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network begins at noon with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.