Carson-Newman rides hot start, efficient ground game to Homecoming rout of Mars Hill

VIDEO: Mike Turner Interview

VIDEO: Highlights

VIDEO: Ja'Quan Smith Interview

VIDEO: Trevor Makarov Interview

VIDEO: Sherron Jackson Interview

VIDEO: Darius Williams Interview

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (5-2, 4-1 South Atlantic Conference) bolted out to a 28-0 lead then rode a ferocious ground game to pound Mars Hill (2-5, 2-3 SAC) 49-27 Saturday afternoon on Homecoming at Burke-Tarr Stadium. 

"Homecoming is an awesome the tradition that Carson-Newman University has," Carson-Newman head football coach Mike Turner said. "People love the university, they love the athletic department, the program, football—and they come back here to watch. They have set the tradition, and we want our kids to understand they have a responsibility to that tradition. But also, they're writing their own book. They're writing their own legacy. And what a great time in the last three weeks to start writing the right kind of chapters for that legacy." 

The Eagles scored the first five times they touched the football en route to piling up 546 yards rushing on 66 attempts to go along with 628 yards of total offense. 

The 546 yards rushing are the most in NCAA Division II this season and the seventh most in school history for a single game.  It marks the first 500-yard rushing performance for C-N since the Eagles had 570 yards against Tusculum in 2015. 

"I think that's what the option provides you," Turner said. "You're going to have a quarterback and two running backs that are going to have yardage. I was very proud of the way they played hard—our quarterbacks—and they're a weapon in themselves because we keep telling them it is a triple-option. And they've done a great job of executing that, and our running backs were on fire today."

Meanwhile, Carson-Newman's 628 yards of total offense register as the 14th highest total in NCAA Division II this season.  It's also the most for the program since a 2016 game against, who else, but Mars Hill, when the Eagles piled up 672 yards of offense.

The Eagles averaged a season-high 8.3 yards per carry and a season-high 8.6 yards per play.

The win gives Carson-Newman seven straight victories over the Lions and extends the Eagles' home winning streak over Mars Hill to 15 straight. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing was the Eagles offensive balance.  Carson-Newman nearly had four players each rush for 100 yards for the first time since 2003.  Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) led the charge with 144 yards on 13 carries. Marcus Williams (Apopka, Fla.) added in 97 yards on nine touches and a score.  Then, Sherron Jackson (Miami, Fla.) and Derrick Evans (Macon, Ga.) rounded things out with 12 carries for 97 yards, and 13 carries for 92 yards, respectively.   Evans and Jackson both found the end zone twice. 

"Evidently when that happens, the offensive linemen are coming off the ball and they're getting their job done as well," Turner said. "Here's where we've got the most improvement, there's no question, is out on the perimeter. Our perimeter blocking is much, much improved and I looked down the field today at times and, gosh, there's a receiver got a guy and he's working his way like crazy legs in there and still keeping leverage on the defensive back."

Carson-Newman got the party started with a lengthy run from Derrick Evans (Macon, Ga.). The junior signal-caller tallied a 53-yard rush to get Carson-Newman down to the three.  Two plays later, Evans called his own number for a  one-yard quarterback sneak to put C-N up 7-0 just 1:48 into the game. 

After the Eagles' defense forced a three-and-out, Carson-Newman bruised down the field on a nine-play, 56-yard drive capped by a Sherron Jackson (Miami, Fla.) four-yard blast over right tackle. 

On the third play of the Lions' ensuing possession, Ja'Quan Smith (Greenville, Ala.) jumped a crossing route for his first pick of the year and took it 20 yards to the house to put Carson-Newman up 21-0 before seven minutes had come off the first quarter clock. 

It marked the first time this year and the 93rd time since 2001 that Carson-Newman had scored at least 21 in a quarter. 

Carson-Newman's defense stood tall on Mars Hill's final drive of the first period.  The Lions got the ball down to the one before going for it on fourth down. Montel Presley (Bushnell, Fla.) snapped down Chris Roberts in the boundary left side to preserve the shutout. 

The Eagles then marched 97 yards the other way to extend the advantage to 28-0.  Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) rattled off a 57-yard rush to flip fields before Tyler Thackerson (Clinton, Tenn.) called his own number on an option left to score from seven yards out with 13:09 to play in the second. 

Craig Rucker responded the next possession for the Lions to get on the board. Austin Brown hit him for an 86-yard score on a post pattern over the middle of the field to make it a 28-7 game. 

That three-score game would be short-lived.  Seven plays later, Jackson coasted in for his second score of the day.  The sophomore had good burst on a third-and-seven to scoot 38 yards for a score on a dive play.

Mars Hill would set the halftime margin at 35-14 with a 4:27 drive before the break.  Rucker took an option pitch into the end zone from two yards out. 

The Eagles had 311 yards of total offense and 269 yards on the ground at the halftime break.   Those numbers would only grow after halftime. 

After a Lions turnover on downs on the first possession of  the second half, the Eagles handed the ball off to Williams on a dive play.  Williams threw a stiff arm to dash one player  to the turf, then sprinted 63 yards to the house to push the lead back to four scores 81 seconds in to the second half. 

Evans rounded out the scoring for the Eagles on a three-yard option keeper in the fourth quarter, while Rucker lit the lamp twice more for the Lions for a scoring sandwich around Evans play.  Rucker took in a 46 yard receiving score and rushed for another on a five-yard jet sweep to set the final margin at 49-27 in favor of the Eagles.

Rucker was a thorn to deal with for Carson-Newman all day long.  He became the first opponent to catch 200 yards worth of passes against Carson-Newman since 1992.  Rodney Robinson had 12 catches for 211 yards for Gardner-Webb on Oct. 24 that year.  Rucker finished with 209 yards on eight catches and two scores.

"You look at number two on video and then you get out here today and look at him and fly by," Turner said. "He's every bit what he was advertised to be. It got down to where he was making plays in all different kinds of formations, and motions, and running the ball with him, throwing the ball. He's a special athlete and coach Clifton does a great job setting up the situations to get him in the right places."

Rucker accounted for two rushing touchdowns as well.  He represented all four of Mars Hill's touchdowns and 48.7 percent of its overall offensive output. 

Austin Brown was hit-and-miss getting him the ball though. Rucker was targeted 16 times, but he only had eight receptions.  Brown was 16-of-35 through the air for 220 yards. James Urzua played the fourth quarter for the Lions, completing 4-of-7 passes, including Rucker's second score through the air. 

Mars Hill became the first team to pass for more than 300 yards against Carson-Newman since the Lions did it last year against the Eagles.

The Lions gained a season-high 444 yards of total offense against the Eagles.  Mars Hill has put up at least 400 yards of offense against Carson-Newman in seven straight seasons, although, the Lions don't have any wins to show for it over that stretch.

Evans and Thackerson combined to lead the Eagles through the air.  They were 5-for-7 for 82 yards as a duo. Thackerson also had seven carries for 44 yards and a score on the ground. 

Romain Kelly (Spartanburg, S.C.) caught two passes for 29 yards. Quinton Phillips (Augusta, Ga.) had one grab for 31 yards. 

Darius Williams (St. Petersburg, Fla.) led Carson-Newman's defense with 11 tackles, his second career 10-tackle performance. Desmond Fairell (Miami, Fla.) tallied six stops, four solo, with two break ups and a fumble recovery.  Jaysen Cook-Calhoun (Hoover, Ala.) had five stops, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

Tray Smith paced Mars Hill with nine stops.

The Eagles wrap up their three-game homestand Oct. 20 against Virginia-Lynchburg. Kickoff with the Dragons is set for 1 p.m. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network starts at noon with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at

Game Day Central 9-22-18
September 22, 2018 Game Day Central 9-22-18