VIDEO: Mike Turner Presser
VIDEO: 2017 Mars Hill Highlights
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (4-2, 3-1 South Atlantic Conference) will effort to ground the top passing attack in the South Atlantic Conference when Mars Hill (2-4, 2-2 SAC) arrives in Mossy Creek for a 3 p.m. Homecoming date with the Eagles Saturday.
Carson-Newman will be contending with Lions' quarterback Austin Brown and All-America candidate wide receiver Craig Rucker. They have helped Mars Hill average a league-best 282.7 yards per game. That figure is also the 23rd best ledger in the nation.
Rucker ranks second in the nation in receiving touchdowns (11), receiving yards (776), receiving yards per game (129.3). He is third in total touchdowns with 12. Rucker has been a nightmare for Carson-Newman to deal with in his career. He has 15 catches for 182 yards and a score in two games against the Eagles.
"Well the number one thing you've got to do is make sure you find him," Turner said. "Because they put him in a lot of different places, which is what you want to do with a talent like that, so people can't load up on him. They have other receivers that are talented but of course he's the go-to guy that makes big plays for them."
Rucker was limited to five catches for 34 yards in last week's 31-28 loss to Tusculum, but had been positively sublime the three weeks prior to that. The coup de grace came at Limestone when he ensnared nine passes for 221 yards and five scores. The week before against Catawba, Rucker had 11 catches for 174 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair in the fourth quarter that sealed a win for the Lions over the Indians at Meares Stadium.
Meanwhile, Brown is in his first season as a full-time starter for 26-year head coach Tim Clifton, but Carson-Newman is all too familiar with the signal-caller.
Brown came on as a second-quarter sub for an injured Matt Layman in 2015. He proceeded to rush for 128 yards on 17 carries and a score while completing 13-of-22 passes for 156 yards and another touchdown. Carson-Newman picked up the win that day 62-38, but Brown remains the last quarterback to rush for at least 100 yards on Carson-Newman.
"They are scoring the most points of anybody we've played so far and they're doing it on a regular basis," Turner said. "So, you know that they're a good offensive football team and they're a solid defensive team also. But they've worked hard. They've come back from being a couple down there early in the season and have come back strong. So, I know they're feeling good about themselves."
This year, he is the Saints second-leading rusher with 329 yards on 49 carries. Through the air, he's been just as impressive. Brown is second in the league in yards per game (223.7) and third in the SAC in touchdowns (12); Brown leads the SAC in completions (115) and is second in completing percentage (60.8 percent).
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.
"I talked with the coaches yesterday morning, it's an important football game, obviously," Turner said. "It's also Homecoming and there's going to be a lot of people that are here for the right reasons but not the same reasons that our kids are. So, they've got to have a great, locked in focus because it can get distracting. And I told them, 'when that ballgame's over you can be distracted.' But we've got to get our job done."
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.
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.
The Eagles rushing attack has been clicking off late. C-N has rushed for at least 350 yards in two straight games and is coming off a season-high 468-yard effort in last week's win over Limestone. Carson-Newman has risen to second in the country in rushing yards per game.
Kickoff between the Eagles and Lions is set for 3 p.m. Saturday. Coverage will be available on the Eagle Sports Network starting with the AEC Tailgate Show at 2 p.m. on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WFPT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.