VIDEO: Ken Sparks Press Conference
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (1-1) opens up conference play in a big way when it makes the trip up I-40 to open up South Atlantic Conference play against Catawba (0-2) Saturday afternoon at 1:30 at Shuford Stadium.
The Indians were picked as the preseason favorite by the league's coaches in August. The Eagles were picked second. Aside from jockeying for a SAC title, the matchup factors heavily into the 2016 playoff picture. A loss for the Indians would give Catawba an 0-3 start to the season (albeit an 0-3 start against top-flight competition), likely meaning the Indians would need to win out and receive a lot of help to make the playoffs for a second straight year.
On the other hand, a C-N loss would give the Eagles a 1-2 start and an uphill climb into the playoff picture.
However, head coach Ken Sparks is positive the playoff picture doesn't need to factor into game-week preparations.
"I'm sure Catawba is going to approach Saturday like the first game of the season," Sparks said. "It's the first conference game and I know they place a lot of emphasis on conference games. They did last year and they were preseason picked first this season and so I think we will see a whole different motivated football team than what they've been in the first two weeks."
Catawba once again appears to be a team that will rely on defense. The Indians gave up 23 points in their losses to West Georgia and Winston-Salem State. Catawba held West Georgia 13 points below their season average from a year ago. The Indians did the same thing to the Rams.
Catawba has allowed 346 yards of total offense on average this season, 165 on the ground and 181 through the air.
"Catawba is a typical Catawba team, especially since (head coach) Curtis (Walker) has been there, they have depended a whole lot on their defense to win," Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks said. They got eight starters returning and they are very, very well coached. They have four great linebackers and they depend on them a whole lot."
Carson-Newman will hope that its offense is in the form that it's been in the last two games, instead of the form that it was stuck in when it lost to Catawba last year 14-7. So far this year, the Eagles have rolled up 580 yards of total offense per game, the third best total in the country. That offense has come with a focus on a potent aerial assault that's averaging 245 yards.
Carson-Newman quarterback Noah Suber (Asheville, N.C.) became just the second C-N quarterback in Carson-Newman history to throw for 200 yards in back-to-back games. He hit 208 yards in the Eagles' opener against Humboldt State before going for 220 against Saint Augustine's. He joins Alex Good as the only C-N signal caller to eclipse the mark in back-to-back games. Good pulled off the feat in 2007 against Wingate and Tusculum. The Eagles had one other sequence of back-to-back 200 yard passing performances in 1997 against Presbyterian and Mars Hill, but the yards were split by Matt Penland and Zac Allen. C-N has had 22, 200-yard passers since the year 2000. At one point in the 80s, the Eagles went six years without a 200-yard passer.
That passing game could factor in against a Catawba defense that held C-N to a season-low seven points and 185 yards rushing.
"We have to grunt louder [laughs] and try to get a couple of first downs that we didn't last year that were critical for us," Sparks said. "We run the option and we weren't reading the option last year. You have to read it. We just didn't have a god ballgame all the way around offensively. We played good enough to win defensively, but offensively, we laid an egg last year in that game."
While the Carson-Newman offense struggled last year against the Indians, the defense had one of its best games. C-N limited Catawba to 340 yards of total offense and 14 points, both the second lowest totals from last season.
If the Eagles are to replicate their defensive success against the Indians, they'll have to defend well against Catawba's dual threat quarterback Mike Sheehan. Sheehan has tossed for 341 yards, while rushing for another 72. His favorite target has been Keyon West, who has 95 yards receiving and a touchdown on nine catches.
"Offensively, the key for them is to not turn the ball over and be sound. They have some guys who can play and a quarterback who can run and throw," Sparks said. "That seems to be something that has been a thorn in our side of late because we haven't responded to it as well athletically that we needed to in the first two ballgames. They are not going to beat themselves and we are going to have to earn what we get. They beat us 14-7 last year because we didn't move the ball very well. We are just going to have to line up and play."
Carson-Newman is one of 14 Division II schools that has yet to give up a turnover. All told, 42 of the 644 football playing schools across NCAA Divisions I, II and III have yet to give up a turnover. On the flip side, Catawba is one of seven Division II schools that has yet to surrender a sack. Out of 644 football playing schools across all NCAA divisions, Catawba is one of 49 that hasn't yet allowed a sack of the quarterback.
Three South Atlantic Conference Hall of Famers will occupy the sidelines during Saturday's game. C-N head football coach Ken Sparks went into the SAC HOF in 2007. A year later, Catawba head coach Curtis Walker, a three-time All-American linebacker for Catawba from 1989-92, went in. Finally, Carson-Newman defensive coordinator Mike Clowney entered the SAC hall in 2014. Clowney was a consensus All-American at linebacker for the Eagles in 1996.
"He is a great competitor," Sparks said of Walker. "He sure enjoys beating Carson-Newman and he has always been well prepared as a player and a coach. He is a motivator. When Curtis shows up, he plays hard if he is playing and he will coach hard if he is coaching. He's a good football coach."
C-N has won four straight at Catawba's Shuford Stadium dating back to a 24-22 loss in 2006.
Carson-Newman has four of the top eight rushers in the South Atlantic Conference. Suber, Jamal Jones (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) and Montavious Taylor (Atlanta, Ga.) all average more than 69 yards on the ground per game.
Kickoff between the Eagles and Indians is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday from Catawba's Shuford Stadium. The Eagle Sports Network is on the air at 12:30 with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.