VIDEO: Ken Sparks presser
VIDEO: Limestone Highlights
The Eagles make the two-hour, 15 minute trek to Tigerville, S.C. to challenge North Greenville (5-3). The Crusaders are ranked ninth in the latest NCAA regional poll, which helps determine the teams that make the NCAA tournament.
"North Greenville really is a good football team. They have three defeats, but they are to quality teams," Sparks said. "They beat Wingate who beat us a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty obvious that we are the underdog, and we're going to have to play a lot more consistent football to win this ball game."
The storyline that will persist through the rest of the season for the Eagles is that Carson-Newman needs to win out to avoid its second losing season since 1978.
To win in Tigerville will be challenging. North Greenville has the nation's most efficient red zone offense. The Crusaders have scored 23 of the 24 times they advanced the football inside their opposition's 20.
The Crusaders have effectively replaced former quarterback Nelson Hughes with a dynamic freshman quarterback in Will Hunter.
"He may have better presence in the pocket than the quarterback (Nelson Hughes) they had last year," Sparks said. "He is certainly doing a good job of not throwing picks, which for a freshman that's kind of unusual. He does a great job; they've got a running back who is a good football player, a big wide receiver, and their offensive line has been very consistent for them all year. Offensively they've got the total package."
Hunter has thrown 15 touchdowns against three interceptions, the eighth fewest in the country among starting quarterbacks. In addition to the impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio, Hunter has completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 2,008 yards.
He has a litany of targets to whom he can chuck the pigskin. Five different wideouts for the Crusaders have at least 10 catches. A 6-6, 230-pound junior named Mason Sanders is the top target. He has 30 catches for 485 yards and six touchdowns.
The Eagles will effort to move a ball against a Crusader defense led by Sam Houston. The linebacker is top 15 in the country with 93 tackles.
"It's what we've been talking about every week (getting linemen up field to block linebackers), if we can get our guys get helmets on their guys, then we'll be okay," Sparks said. "It's been a challenge for us in a lot of different ways, but Saturday was an improvement and we hope to get better from it."
Carson-Newman is coming off its first fourth-quarter comeback in three seasons. The Eagles trailed by one at the start of the fourth against Limestone. The last time the Eagles rallied after trailing at the end of 45 minutes was homecoming in 2014 against this week's opponent NGU in a 35-34 win.
With 1,457 yards passing this season, C-N quarterback Noah Suber (Asheville, N.C.) needs 286 more yards to work his way into the top 10 list for most yards passing in a single C-N football season.
Suber has the most 200-yard games (four) in one season in the Sparks era
Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) tallied three rushing touchdowns the last time the teams got together. That marks the last time a Carson-Newman football player scored three rushing touchdowns in one game.
Carson-Newman has three 70-yard touchdown passes in the same season for the first time this decade. Aaron Seward (Charlotte, N.C.) is responsible for two of the hauls, Jamal Jones accounts for the other.
"I have no complaints about our kids responding to us," Sparks said. "It's been a good group, are they frustrating to coach sometimes? Yes. Are they good people? Yes. Would we like to finish with three wins? Yes. Doing something the next couple of weeks will be fun."
Kickoff between the Eagles and Crusaders is set for 1 p.m. Saturday. Coverage for the game starts at noon on the Eagle Sports Network on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live with the AEC Tailgate Show.