VIDEO: Mike Turner Press Conference
VIDEO: 2016 Catawba Highlights
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (2-2, 0-2 South Atlantic Conference) faces what head coach Mike Turner says is the Eagles' toughest test to date when No. 23 Catawba (4-0, 1-0 SAC) rolls into Mossy Creek for a 1 p.m. kickoff from Burke-Tarr Stadium, Saturday.
The Eagles will be looking for their first win over a ranked opponent since Oct. 24, 2015 when C-N downed then 21st-ranked Wingate 41-38 in overtime in the Old North State.
The Eagles have a 34-29 record against NCAA Division II ranked opponents all-time. This will be the third time the Eagles have squared off with an opponent ranked 23rd. C-N lost to Presbyterian 37-3 on Oct. 8, 2005 and 23-20 to Mars Hill in the 2011 finale. While the Eagles have a winning record all-time against ranked foes, C-N is just 4-10 against the top 25 since 2009.
Half of those wins came at Mossy Creek in 2013 when C-N downed ranked Newberry teams in the regular season and playoffs of that year. C-N is 2-3 against ranked foes at home during that same time. The three losses came at the hands of No. 7 Humboldt State last year, No. 4 Lenoir-Rhyne in 2014 and No. 5 North Alabama in 2009.
A large part of what has made Catawba a SAC front runner in Turner's mind has been the Indians defense.
"It's part experience, part size up front," head football coach Mike Turner said. "They got some outstanding players, it's good to see that some of them are seniors. Curtis (Walker, Catawba's head coach) does a great job with their defense as he always has. They are very sound in how they execute, they are not going leave an opening."
Catawba leads the league in total defense (288 yards per game allowed) and scoring defense (10.5 points per game allowed). The Indians scoring defense is ranked seventh in the nation.
Catawba hasn't allowed a third-quarter point all season long. The Indians have allowed just one touchdown in the middle two quarters of games all season.
Picture of how good #23 @CatawbaFootball is this year - Indians rank in the top 50 of all but seven statistical categories, out of 47— Adam Cavalier (@cavonthecall) September 26, 2017
While the Indians lead the league in scoring D and total D, Carson-Newman isn't too far behind. C-N ranks number two in the league in both categories, but has Catawba beat for the conference's top rushing defense.
"I think for both of us it is to prevent the big play," Turner said. "You want to make people earn everything that they get, if you do that you hope that you're going to make a play on defense. They know how they are going to execute on offense, we know how we are going to execute on defense. It's a matter of taking care of the football. We went over there last year and we had 450 yards of offense but that doesn't count when you have five turnovers."
The Eagles have only allowed 12 plays of 20 yards or longer on the season and just three (all last week against Newberry) that have gone for 30 yards or more.
In the same vein, Catawba allowed seven plays of 20 yards or more in last week's 37-13 win over Mars Hill. The Indians have given up another seven plays of 20 yards or more in the other three weeks of the season combined, and six of those came in the Indians' win over VMI.
Catawba will be attempting to do something it's never done in the 50-game series history with the Eagles, that's win three straight games against the Eagles. The Indians had just two wins in Jefferson City from 1980-2012.
However, all the Indians wins in Jeff City have some significance. A 14-7 win to start conference play in 2015 helped catapult Catawba to a SAC title. The Indians knocked the Eagles out of the top 10 with a 25-22 triumph in 2013. A 55-49 shootout win for Catawba in 2007 kept the Eagles out of the playoffs.
A 2-0, yes, 2-0, win for the Indians in 1987 represents one of just two shutouts handed to head coach Ken Sparks in his 37-year career at Mossy Creek. In that game, former Catawba defensive coordinator Keith Henry blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety that stood as the final margin.
The Eagles hope to avoid handing the Indians that bit of history while avoiding some of their own. C-N is looking to avoid an 0-3 start to South Atlantic Conference play. Since 1979, Carson-Newman has only had eight seasons where it suffered three losses in conference play. 2011 is the only year where the Eagles started 0-3 in league play.
"You have two choices that you can make in adversity, it either makes you weaker or it makes you stronger," Turner said. "I walked into a Sunday school class on Sunday morning and one of the verses we went over was, being a child of God doesn't prevent you from having adversity but it enables you to overcome it. Believing and having faith gets you to handle adversity the right way. We are going to face adversity, anybody can be right up there at the top when you are rolling along. It's when you hit a speed bump, it's how do you handle it. I told our kids yesterday point blank, you either handle it like a little boy or you handle it like a man."
The Eagles are in the midst of a three-game streak where the normally high-octane veer option attack has not rushed for more than 300 yards. This is the first time that has occurred since 2011, when Lenoir-Rhyne, Newberry and Wingate all held C-N under 200 yards rushing in consecutive weeks. The 2007 season marks the last time C-N had four straight games without 300 yards rushing, doing so in four straight wins against Saint Augustine's, Dixie State, Newberry and Mars Hill.
To correct that trend it will have to move the ball against a Catawba defense that has locked down the Eagles in recent years. The Eagles have been held under 200 yards rushing in the last two meetings against the Indians. C-N has cracked 300 yards just once in the last five years, when the Eagles rushed for 313 yards in a 35-33 win over the Indians in Salisbury, N.C.
"You got to put yourself in a position to block them but you got to maintain a block," Turner said. "We need just a little bit more to maintain those blocks, so that we can help continue drives a little bit further. We talked to our football team starting three or four years ago about having a four-yard mentality. A four-yard mentality three times moves the chains, a four-yard mentality gets you in position to make a 40 or 60-yard play. We are coming up short to many times with three and three and half yard runs. We need to have that four-yard mentality in order to move the chains and keep drives alive."
Kickoff between the Eagles and Indians is set for 1 p.m. Saturday. Coverage of the contest will be available on the Eagle Sports Network on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live starting with the AEC Tailgate Show at noon.