VIDEO: Ken Sparks Press Conference
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (1-2, 0-1 South Atlantic Conference) head football coach Ken Sparks wants the Eagles to execute in all phases of the game when Mars Hill (2-1, 0-0 SAC) comes to town for a noon kick Saturday at Burke-Tarr Stadium.
The message comes a week after the Eagles tossed a pair of interceptions and lost a trio of fumbles in a 40-20 defeat to open up South Atlantic Conference play at Catawba.
"It's a big word. It's called execution," Sparks said. "That eliminates turnovers. There were some times Saturday that we didn't execute. It didn't get knocked lose by a hard tackle except for maybe one time. The rest of the time were just mental mistakes."
The Eagles were one of 14 teams in all Division II that played turnover free through the first two weeks of the season. Now the Eagles rank 63rd in turnovers lost and 138th in turnover margin.
Carson-Newman's defense wasn't without issue against the Indians. The Eagles limited Catawba to 314 yards of total offense, but the Indians managed to convert eight of 15 third downs. Of those 15 third downs, 13 needed six yards or longer. The Indians converted on seven of those.
An inability to get off the field on third or produce turnovers (C-N is last in the country with one interception by Ja'Quan Smith (Greenville, Ala.)) has Sparks looking for a ray of sunshine from the defensive side of the football.
"One of the great things about a defense is that if you aren't tackling really well or lining up correctly, you can at least get a couple of turnovers," Sparks said. "We aren't doing either right now. But it's all about of the inexperienced and youth package at times but we still aren't tackling the way we need to. Usually you aren't going to have turnovers if you aren't tackling well. We just need to continue to work at it."
Carson-Newman has owned the all-time series against Mars Hill. C-N has won four straight and has 43 wins to Mars Hill's 10. Sparks is 20-3 all-time as a coach against Mars Hill's Tim Clifton.
Ever since the Mars Hill Lions deprived Ken Sparks of his 300th victory on his first try in 2011, the Eagles haven't lost to Tim Clifton's club.
The Eagles have won four straight in the series thanks to a marvelous run game that hasn't rushed for less than 420 yards over that span. The Eagles rushed for 488 in 2012, 433 in 2013, 428 in 2014 and 435 yards in 2015. What's more, the Eagles have produced at least 500 yards of total offense in three of those four games. The Eagles tied a school record with eight rushing touchdowns in last year's game.
The Lions are one of the SAC's more dangerous offensive teams. Last year, Mars Hill set a record when it became the first team to ever run 100 plays against Carson-Newman. It had 538 yards of total offense in the 62-38 loss to the Eagles.
This year, Mars Hill has the nation's most efficient red zone offense. Nine times the Lions have taken the ball inside their opponent's 20, and nine times the Lions have come away with seven points.
Lions' wide receiver Craig Rucker has proved to be in immediate impact player. Rucker ranks ninth in the country in all-purpose yardage. He averages 187.33 all-purpose yards per game. Against Limestone, Rucker hauled in seven passes for 125 yards and two scores. He leads the league in receiving TDs this year with four.
"Speed. They are very talented and get the ball in space," Sparks said. "The odds of getting them corralled when they have the ball in space are not as great as some other people because they run so well. They can run out of trouble and they have given us a fit every year. They have scored points against us every year. They are probably watching film and licking their chops the way we are playing defense right now and thinking they can probably score some more against us. We have to be better tacklers than we have been. There's no question about that."
It's more than just Rucker for the Lions. Keshaun Taylor has been sidelined with an injury for the first quarter of the season for the Lions, but should he play against the Eagles, it would be the debut for last year's leading receiver in the SAC. Taylor averaged 107 yards per game last year with 10 touchdowns.
Regardless of Taylor's health, the Lions still have Gilbert Johnson to throw the ball to. The 6-6, 220-pound wideout had nine TDs a year ago. In one game this year, Gilbert caught nine balls for 181 yards.
"Mars Hill is always an interesting team to play," Sparks said. "They have a good deal of trick plays and we will see some of them. They do some things defensively very well as far as technique, so they will play us tough. It is kind of one of them neighborhood games if you want to call it that. They are so close to us geographically. I think it is an important game to them and I know its an important game to us. It will be a good challenge for us."
Carson-Newman has thrown the ball well this year. Noah Suber (Asheville, N.C.) is second in the league with 221.3 yards per game passing. He is the first quarterback since at least 1980 to throw for at least 200 yards in three consecutive games.
Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) registers as the Eagles' leading rusher with 75 yards per game (fourth in the league). Carson-Newman has four rushers in the league's top ten with Suber, Montavious Taylor (Atlanta, Ga.) and Jamal Jones (Chattanooga, Tenn.) all averaging at least 55 yards per game.
"I hope we are growing up physically and mentally," Sparks said. "All of that starts in the heart and we have some kids with good hearts. I think we have some that are trying to figure that out too. You never know until you get under the fire exactly how someone will react. We have some that have melted under the fire and we have some that we are trying to figure out how to get them through it. We have a few that need to get all the way in or all the way out. That's the only way I know how to do it in order to be fair to everybody. We are still working on that."
The contest will be Carson-Newman's Coach To Cure MD game. C-N's football coaches will wear logo patch on the sidelines and college football fans will be asked to donate to research projects supported by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD), the largest, most comprehensive nonprofit organization in the U.S. focused entirely on Duchenne. Football fans can help support the fight to end Duchenne by either going online to www.CoachtoCureMD.org or by texting the word CURE to 90999 (a $5 donation will automatically be added to your next phone bill).
Seth Cate, a local child with DMD will assist with the game's opening coin toss.
On another note, Ken Sparks can tie Pop Warner for fifth on the NCAA's all-wins list. We've already made a big hoopla about Sparks passing Warner on the College Football Hall of Fame wins list. So we as a Sports Information office won't be doing it again. The NCAA credits Warner with wins from where he coached three school's concurrently, other lists which we have used do not credit Warner with those victories. With two more wins, Sparks will be unanimously fifth on college football's all-time wins list - thus unifying the title belt, so to speak.
Kickoff for the contest is set for noon. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network will begin at 11 a.m. on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live with the AEC Tailgate Show.