VIDEO: Ken Sparks Press Conference
VIDEO: Limestone 2015 Highlights
VIDEO: Wingate Highlights
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (3-5) celebrates Homecoming Saturday looking to extend a four-game winning streak on the day of celebration. The Eagles' opponent is SAC alliance member Limestone (5-3).
The weekend will feature the 20-year reunion for the 1996 team that made the national title game as well as the induction of two members of that team into the Carson-Newman Athletics Hall of Fame in linebacker Mike Clowney and defensive lineman Cedric Killings.
"It's always good to have homecoming at Carson-Newman and to see all of our old buddies and pals," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "We get to see a big excited crowd. Hopefully we can play decent enough to keep them in the stands. It will be a great time in Mossy Creek. We have the 1996 team coming who played for a national championship. It's Parents Day and that's always special for the kids to play in front of their parents. All of those things make for an exciting day."
Carson-Newman hasn't lost a homecoming game since dropping the 2011 rendition of the contest to UNC Pembroke 42-14. That was also the last time Carson-Newman last lost three consecutive games in one season. The Eagles are looking to avoid what would be just their third three-game skid in the last 40 seasons of football.
"It could be a great day and we are hoping that one of these days we are going to play football like we are supposed to," Sparks said. "I am predicting that will be Saturday. We have to play better and make some progress. This team has worked hard enough to have some progress that hasn't showed up yet. We keep thinking that one of these days it's going to show up. We are going to keep working in faith that it will."
In addition to the Homecoming, Hall of Fame and 1996 team reunion festivities, the Eagles will honor 18 seniors. The crowd on hand will no doubt be hoping for an Eagle victory, for more than one reason.
Carson-Newman is guaranteed a losing record in the South Atlantic Conference for the first time since 2011 and the third since 1979. Carson-Newman needs to win out to avoid its second losing season since 1978.
A win is certainly not guaranteed against the Saints who are in their third year of existence as a football program. Former Marshall University assistant coach Mike Furrey has Limestone playing well with an opportunistic defense.
"He's doing something right because they play hard," Sparks said. "That maybe the number one compliment to a coach is seeing how hard the team has played. They play hard and they have a plan. If you remember last year, they scored a bunch of points on us with the athletes they had. He has taken some of the athletes that returned and put them into place."
Limestone leads the country in defensive touchdowns this season. The Saints have seven scores by way of the defense. A whopping 24.9 percent of the Saints' scoring has been done by the defense this season.
PJ Brown and Joshua Simmons both have a pair of interception returns for scores for the Saints.
The Saints also lead the country this season with 28 turnovers forced. Jaylen Miller is third in the country with three fumble recoveries. Brown has five interceptions, putting him sixth in the country. Simmons is second nationally with six. Simmons also ranks 13th with a trio of fumble recoveries.
Because of the Saints' ball-hawking tendencies, ball security will once be a highlight for the Eagles.
Carson-Newman is minus eight in turnovers in its five losses. In its three wins, the Eagles are plus seven in turnovers.
"You look at some of our disaster ballgames, it's been on turnovers," Sparks said. "There are two things that bug me. One, is the lack of execution on offense that resulted from turnovers and the other is failure on third down for our defense. It has been almost predictable for us. At some point or another, we have to get something done with that.
"I know we have struggling up front on both the offensive and defensive lines because we are not playing the people we want to play. We haven't been able to all year. There has not been a time where we have had our best-five offensive lineman in the ballgame, at least in our minds, and there has not been a time where we have had the best defensive line as well."
Carson-Newman punter Jonathan King (Knoxville, Tenn.) has averaged 43.6 yards per boot this season. That figure ranks sixth in all Division II. If King didn't punt again, his average would rank as the third best single-season average in Carson-Newman football history.
King has been pressed into service 30 times this year. Of the Eagles' 30 punts this season, 23 have come following a three-and-out. Things truly have been feast or famine this year for the Eagles offensively. Out of 104 drives this year, C-N has put the ball in the end zone 35 times, or 33.65 percent of the time. On the other hand, 35.57 percent of the time, Carson-Newman has seen drives end on either a three-and-out or a turnover.
Kickoff between the Eagles and Saints is slated for 3 p.m. Coverage on the Eagle Sports Network gets underway with the AEC Tailgate Show at 2 p.m. on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.