VIDEO: Mike Turner Interview
VIDEO: Demitri Saulsberry
VIDEO: Darius Williams Interview
VIDEO: Jared Dillingham Interview
VIDEO: Montel Presley Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Behind a dominant defensive effort and a bruising running game, Carson-Newman (3-2, 1-2 South Atlantic Conference) pounded out a 31-18 victory Saturday afternoon at Burke-Tarr Stadium over the 23rd-ranked Catawba College Catawba Indians (4-1, 1-1 SAC).
The Eagles tallied a season high 333 yards rushing behind a forceful two-tight end attack against the conference's top defense. The total yards rushing are also the most that the Eagles have gained on Catawba since Curtis Walker took over the Indians' program in 2013.
As opposed to the last two weeks, which were highlighted by second half miscues, the Eagles kept their foot on the accelerator after halftime.
Carson-Newman became the first team this season to score on Catawba in the third quarter. The Eagles did it twice.
"Today we didn't make the mistakes that we have the past couple weeks," head coach Mike Turner said. "We didn't stay behind today and our defense shut things down. I'm so happy for these kids to get to enjoy a win like that after all the effort they put in."
The Eagles got a career effort from running back Jared Dillingham (Central, S.C.). The senior ripped off 145 yards for his first 100-yard game on the ground. He found the end zone on an Andy Hibbett-like 65 yard touchdown run on a dive play.
"The satisfaction of this win after the last two weeks is really indescribable," Turner said. "Those kids have hurt for the past two weeks. To see what they go through in all facets of life with the demands put on them, for them to do that and succeed this week is tremendous."
His career rushing effort was followed by career ground gainer days from quarterback Derrick Evans (Macon, Ga.) and running back Demitri Saulsberry (St. Mary's, Ga.). Saulsberry rushed for a career-high 17 times and a career-high 86 yards. Saulsberry nearly doubled his season rushing effort with the performance. Evans, meanwhile, rattled off 75 yards on 15 carries, including a career-long 55 yard touchdown run.
The Eagles ran almost exclusively behind two tight end sets, going to three wide and two wide receivers only a handful of times.
"Anytime you go two tightends, the defense has to declare against your because you've balanced it up," Turner said. "That gave us a better opportunity to get a body to a body. Catawba's a great defensive team, we all know that. Our backs ran hard against them. We're not there yet. But man, did we take a step today that was undefeated and ranked in the top 25 in the coaches poll, and Catawba deserves that."
The Indians got off to a start that was aided somewhat by Carson-Newman miscues to grab an early 7-0 lead on the first possession. After it appeared that C-N had halted the Indians drive around midfield following an incompletion, the Eagles roughed Catawba QB Patrick O'Brien to hand the Indians a fresh set of downs. O'Brien capitalized with a nine-yard tip drill touchdown pass to Eamon Smart.
Antonio Henderson (Palmetto, Fla.) batted a pass intended for Sam Mobly into the air. Smart was in position to go horizontal and pull in the opening score that put Catawba up 7-0 after a 12-play, 75-yard drive took 6:29 off the clock.
The Eagles quickly countered on the next possession, taking their first opening drive of the season into the end zone. Evans whipped around the left side of the line for a quarterback option and found plenty of daylight in front of him. The sophomore jetted 55 yards for the score to finish of a 5-play, 75-yard drive in 1:35. The possession marked just the third of the year that the Indians would allow to travel more than 60 yards, and the Eagles would have two more later in the game.
After C-N's defense forced a three-and-out, the offense took over with exceptional field position following a short Caleb Berry punt.
The Eagles ground out a 12-play, 41-yard drive to take a lead they would not relinquish. Saulsberry found the end zone on fourth down on a one-yard trap play to the left side of the line.
Both teams exchanged punts to close out the first half with the Eagles up 14-7.
Carson-Newman kept the good times rolling after coming back out of the locker room as opposed to the previous two weeks, which were highlighted by C-N's third quarter missteps.
The Eagles utilized a methodical 14-play, 75-yard possession to take a two score lead with 8:46 left in the third quarter. Evans capped the 6:14 drive with a three-yard option keeper around the right tackle for his second score of the day.
The Indians countered with points of their own on the next possession, driving down to the C-N six before the Eagles defense stiffened. Lee Brackman still connected on a 23-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 21-10.
However, just three plays later, the Eagles extended the lead. Dillingham blasted into the second level and out ran three Catawba defenders for a 65-yard score, the longest rush of the season for the Eagles.
The Indians' next four possessions were forgettable. The Indians followed a three-and-out with two interceptions and a turnover on downs.
Catawba did make things interesting late when Kenyatta Greene scampered 86 yards for a score on a screen pass to pull the Indians within 10 with 3:23 remaining. The lengthy catch and run marked the first time since 2012 that the Eagles gave up a pass of 75 yards or longer. Chris Bowden from Wingate was the last man to do it, housing a 75-yard catch against the Eagles.
However, the Eagles recovered the ensuing onside kick and Elijah Holbert (Knoxville, Tenn.) booted a career-long 47-yard field goal to put the game on ice.
The win means Carson-Newman avoids its first 0-3 start in conference play since 2011 and the second in the history of the South Atlantic Conference. The Eagles' victory also prevents Catawba from its first ever three-game win streak in the 51-game series history with the Eagles. C-N now leads the all-time ledger 38-12-1.
Carson-Newman's defense limited the league's top offense to 310 yards, 120 yards and 21 points below the Indians' season averages.
If you remove Greene's 86-yard score, the Indians averaged 3.86 yards a play over 224 yards of total offense.
"We had a decent rush, that's always first," Turner said. "We played some underneath coverage and had some linebackers who made some great drops. I was proud of our kids on defense for not allowing Catawba to find the ball at different levels."
Montel Presley (Bushnell, Fla.) led the charge defensively with a season-high nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in his first start of the year.
The Eagles aerial attack elected to avoid takeoff for most of the afternoon. C-N passed for a season-low 24 yards. Diantae Thomas (Dothan, Ala.) got both passes, a pair of screens.
The Indians' O'Brien was 16-for-33 through the air for 228 yards. The senior transfer from UNC Pembroke came into the contest with 10 touchdowns against one interception; he was completing 63 percent of his passes. The Eagles held him well below his efficiency rating for the day.
Mobley was his top target. The senior wideout grabbed seven passes for 70 yards. However, the Indians targeted him 11 times.
Eamon Smart led the Indians' rushing attack with 63 yards on 13 carries. Half of his yardage gained came on a 32-yard run in the second quarter, the longest rushing play of the season for Catawba.
Troy Evans and Taylor Bembry led Catawba's defense. Each had 12 tackles.
"I hope we see this as a growing period," Turner said. "Sometimes you can't see what's in store for you because your eyes can't see it. If you keep trusting and keep having the faith, God will allow you to see things that regular eyes can't see. Hopefully we see why things happen the way they do now. Now, hopefully we have enough vision going forward to get this thing done playing wide open and excited and we keep believing."
The Eagles hit the road next week for a 6 p.m. date with Limestone on Saturday. Pregame coverage for the contest on the Eagle Sports Network starts at 5 with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.