JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – This is the seventh part in an 11-part series breaking down all of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2018 season. This breakdown deals with the Eagles' homecoming opponent Mars Hill.
Carson-Newman will be looking to start a new positive homecoming trend after North Greenville put a halt to the Eagles' five-game homecoming winning streak last year.
The Eagles, at least historically, have picked the right opponent for their homecoming affair. Mars Hill hasn't beaten Carson-Newman at Mossy Creek in 29 years. The Lions last beat Carson-Newman at Burke-Tarr Stadium on Oct. 7, 1989, 17-14, to hand the Eagles' their only loss of 1989. C-N would go on to finish the year with six straight wins and a fifth NAIA national championship in the 1980s.
Since then, the Lions have managed to beat the Eagles three times, all in the mountains outside Asheville.
Ever since the Mars Hill Lions deprived former head coach 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 six 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, 435 in 2015, 428 in 2016 and 420 in 2017. What's more, the Eagles have produced at least 500 yards of total offense in five of those six games, including 672 yards 2016, the eighth highest single-game total in school history. The Eagles tied a school record with eight rushing touchdowns in 2015's game.
That road could be tougher for the Lions this upcoming the season. Tim Clifton returns just four defensive starters as the SAC's dean of coaches enters his 25th season with the Lions.
Granted, that might not be a bad thing either. A restocked defense may give the Lions, picked in a tie for seventh in the league's preseason coaches poll, a chance to improve upon a league worst 36.3 points per game allowed last year. The Lions were the only team in the conference to give up more than 400 yards a game of total offense last year (458.5 to be exact) and forced a league-low 11 turnovers.
Tray Smith was a defensive bright spot last year. He is the team's returning leading tackler with 62 stops and eight tackles for loss.
Offensively, things are a bit more rosy for the Lions, although, even that isn't without some dark spots.
The biggest loss is all-everything wide receiver Keshaun Taylor. He's an especially big loss for Mars Hill considering the Eagles were completely unable to cover him the past four years. Taylor hauled in seven catches for 175 yards as a senior, 10 catches for 162 yards as a junior, 10 catches for 127 yards as a sophomore and, wait for it, three catches for 127 yards as a freshman.
He will not be missed. The only positive is that Taylor only found the end zone twice against Carson-Newman in his career. Add it up and Taylor caught 30 passes for 591 yards in his career against the Eagles. That's a whopping 147.75 yards per game.
One might think the Eagles could breathe a sigh of relief with his absence, but Craig Rucker is the heir apparent in a lone line of exceptional Mars Hill wide receivers. The preseason All-SAC first teamer had a 10-catch, 135-yard, one-touchdown day against Carson-Newman last year.
Not to mention, the league's top passing attack from a year ago also brings back two other starting wideouts around him in Javon Harbison and Tyler Ferguson.
Who gets them the ball will change. Gone is senior starter David Salmon. Back is on-again-off-again signal caller Austin Brown. Brown was but 8-for-20 through the air last year for the Lions.
However, two years ago, the nimble gunslinger scrambled for 264 yards rushing and two touchdowns, in addition to his 814 yards passing and eight scores through the air.
Carson-Newman's Better Know The Opponent previews continue Sunday with the Virginia-Lynchburg Dragons.