No. 13 Eagles open up season with visit from No. 7 Lumberjacks

No. 13 Eagles open up season with visit from No. 7 Lumberjacks

VIDEO: Noah Suber press conference

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – No. 13 Carson-Newman opens the 2016 season on a national stage against a nationally-recognized opponent.  The Eagles clash with No. 7 Humboldt State at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the first Division II football game in the country. 

The contest will be available on ESPN 3. 

Both teams made it to the NCAA playoffs last season with the Eagles falling in heartbreaking fashion to the Valdosta State Blazers 61-59.  Humboldt State collected a home victory over Augustana before falling in the second round to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State. 

"They are really a good football team," C-N head coach Ken Sparks said. "They are well-coached and sound in all three phases of the game.  They have high expectations, high talent and a good system.  Anytime you line up against someone like that, you'd better be ready to play.

If trends from 2015 continue to 2016, the points will come tumbling out of this one.  Carson-Newman's 2015 team became the first in school history to score 60 on three occasions in one season.  C-N touched 50 two more times.  On the flip side, Humboldt State's offense topped 60 twice and 50 three more times. 

The Jacks could potentially have the best returning player in the country.  The key to the Jacks' attack last season was its running game, spearheaded by Harlon Hill Trophy runner-up Ja'Quan Gardner. The Ceres, Calif., product led NCAA Division II in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and returns for his junior campaign.

Gardner racked up 188 yards on the ground per game while finding the end zone on 25 occasions.  His top outing on the ground came against Azusa Pacific with 305 yards on 36 carries.  Gardner packed in another five 200-yard performances.  Only defending national champion Northwest Missouri State was able to bottle him up in the playoffs, keeping the junior to 24 yards on 14 carries – it was the only game of the season that Gardner neither cracked the 100-yard mark nor found the end zone. 

"They are a balanced football team that can run and throw with a two-year starter at quarterback," Sparks said. "They are used to being able to stretch the field with their quarterback Webber and their running back Gardner. Then when you line up with big, tall 300 pounders up front, that's a heck of a way to start."

However, Humboldt State is far from just Ja'Quan Gardner.   

Another familiar face will guide the Jacks from under center. Robert Webber will open his junior season as HSU's top signal caller and will aim to improve on last year's success. He finished 2015 with 2,213 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes.  He completed 61 percent of  his tosses and was only picked off on seven occasions. 
The 2016 season will be the last for receiver Chase Krivashei. The Corona, Calif., native earned GNAC Freshman of the Year honors following the Jacks' difficult 0-11 campaign. Sixty-two pass receptions are all that separate Krivashei and all-time leading receiving Dustin Creager in the record books, and by the time his career is over, he may hold several other HSU all-time records.

While the Lumberjacks' offense is impeccable, their defense has been walloped by graduation.  Only Cameron Buell returns among the starters for HSU.  He leads a unit that led the GNAC in total defense and scoring defense last year.  HSU has produced the GNAC defensive player of the year in back-to-back seasons. 

"They have some guys who played last year," Sparks said. "They brought in a bunch of junior college players, and we know about them because they're junior college players. They might be enjoying talking about them being the weak link because they are a good, talented bunch.  We'll have our hands full with them."

Carson-Newman is 29-6-1 in season-opening games under Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks. Carson-Newman hasn't scored any less than 44 points in an opening day win since 2003 (a 21- 14 win over Winston-Salem State) save for 2014's 38-24 win over Edinboro. The only losses on opening day in the last decade game in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010 to Winona State. Carson-Newman has scored more than 70 once, more than 50 four other times. The Eagles have only failed to score less than 40 three times since 1999 in wins.

Humboldt State will be the second California school Carson-Newman has faced. The Eagles beat UC Davis 29-26 in the 1996 national semifinals. The Eagles are 2-0 against members of the GNAC. C-N defeated Western Oregon 24-7 in 2000 and 55-20 in 2002. This will be the second meeting between Carson-Newman and Humboldt State on an athletic department-wide scale. The C-N volleyball team scored a 3-2 win over the Jacks in 2014.

With its number seven ranking, Humboldt State is the highest-ranked opponent to visit Burke-Tarr Stadium since fourth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne came to town in 2014. The Bears won that day 35-32 as a Carson-Newman comeback bid fell short.  The Jacks are the highest ranked nonconference foe to come to Burke-Tarr since 2008 when No. 3 North Alabama defeated No. 4 Carson-Newman 20-13 in week two. 

This marks the first time that Carson-Newman has opened the season with a top 10 team since 1987.  The Eagles defeated No. 1 Hillsdale that day at home 10-3.  It's the fifth time since 1993 that Carson-Newman has opened the year against someone in the top 25.  The Eagles  are 3-1 in such games.

"Our guys have worked hard and have been pretty intentional in their preparation," Sparks said. "We have to play disciplined football, and of course, block and tackle.  We need to play all four quarters with a whole lot of heart and play every play as if it could be the play that decides the ball game."

Kickoff between the Eagles and Jacks is slated for 1:30 p.m.  Coverage of the game will be available on the Eagle Sports Network starting with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at  The game will also be broadcast on ESPN 3.

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