VIDEO: Mike Turner Press Conference
VIDEO: Catawba 2017 Game Highlights
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – The matchup between Carson-Newman (2-1, 1-1 South Atlantic Conference) and Catawba (1-2, 0-1 SAC) Saturday at Shuford Stadium features two teams that narrowly missed out on the 2017 NCAA playoffs.
The week-five collision between the Eagles and Indians could be considered an elimination game for the 2018 postseason. Whoever exits Shuford Stadium following the 1:30 p.m. game Saturday with a loss will likely have their playoff and SAC title hopes on life support.
Both teams enter the contest fresh off a loss. The Eagles were flummoxed offensively at Newberry 23-3. Meanwhile, Mars Hill notched its first win in four tries, taking a 39-33 win over Catawba in the last minute.
Carson-Newman has started 2-2 for a third consecutive season and an eighth time in the last 11 years. It's never time to hit the panic button with a 2-2 start. The Eagles went on to make the playoffs after 2-2 starts in 2012, 2009 and 2008. The 2015 team started 3-2 before rattling off six straight wins to make Carson-Newman's last playoff appearance. In fact, Carson-Newman's last six playoff appearances have stemmed from teams with at least two losses in Division II.
"We've got to go on (and put the Newberry game behind us)," Carson-Newman head football coach Mike Turner said. "You know, coaches are frustrated, kids are frustrated. However, it's a very very simple fix; you've just got to play, and go play wide open all the time. There shouldn't be a time that you ever wonder about yourself, 'Am I going to turn loose every snap? Am I going to play hard every snap?'
"We read them a great verse that says, if you're a child of God, that doesn't prevent you from facing adversity, but it does enable you to overcome it. I hope we've got kids that in their heart and brain will overcome a performance that's not typical of what they're about."
Last year, Carson-Newman was in a similar situation heading into week five. The Eagles were 2-2 and needed a win over then No. 23 and unbeaten Catawba to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Carson-Newman racked up 333 yards on the ground behind a bruising two-tight end rushing attack en route to a 33-18 win last year over Catawba. 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. The only other time Carson-Newman has rushed for more than 250 yards against a Curtis Walker-coached team was in 2014 when the Eagles put up 313 yards on the ground en route to a 35-33 win over the Indians at Shuford Stadium.
"We've got to be a little more urgent about taking care of our business," Turner said. "Our players watched the video before I talked to them yesterday, they know exactly how that performance (against Newberry) was. We were certainly capable of winning that football game, our defense played hard and continues to play hard. On offense we've got to produce more, make drives stay alive, make first downs when we need to and put points on the board. That's our responsibility."
The Eagles' offense is both ahead of and behind where it was at this time last year. Through four games last year, Carson-Newman had one game with 250 yards rushing and was averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Through four games this year, Carson-Newman has three games with at least 250 yards rushing and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. However, Carson-Newman's aerial attack has regressed with the loss of Dorren Miller to the NFL. This year, Carson-Newman has thrown for 271 yards. Last year, the Eagles had 213 alone against Wingate and at least 145 yards through the air in every game to start 2017.
Carson-Newman has had recent success at Catawba's Shuford Stadium. Carson-Newman has taken four of the last five meetings at Shuford Stadium. However, the Indians do own the most recent win at Shuford Stadium in the series, triumphing 40-20 in 2016.
Catawba has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma this year. Over the last three seasons, Catawba has been one of the stingiest defenses in the SAC. Carson-Newman's 333-yard rushing effort last year was the only contest in that stretch where the Indians gave up more than 250 yards rushing.
This year, the Indians have given up 208 yards in a 34-3 season-opening loss to West Georgia and 354 yards to Mars Hill in last week's loss. The Lions' 602 yards of total offense are the most allowed by a Curtis Walker-coached team.
"Well there's one thing that's always going to be solid out of Catawba and that's their defense because of Curtis," Turner said. "He's going to coach that bunch, get them ready and have them prepared. He always does year in and year out. They've switched a little right now, going back to a 40 front which is what Curtis was originally when he played there at Catawba and when he coached at Coastal. So, they're flying around right now and getting after it."
The Indians are one of four schools in the SAC allowing more than 400 yards per game of total offense. They rank seventh in the league in rush defense with 215.7 yards per game allowed on the ground.
Meanwhile, Catawba's offense has hummed along. The Indians are averaging 216 yards through the air and have the best pass-catching tight end in the conference in Jordan Osinskie. He is the Indians' leading receiver in terms of receptions. He has 14 catches for 160 yards.
"When Catawba's been very good they've always had a good tight end, sometimes two of them," Turner said. "In today's world, in this spread deal and this west coast type deal, a tight end is one of the more featured players in the offense. So, he's a threat no question."
Complementing Osinskie for quarterback Reid Carlton to work with is home-run hitter Will Sweeper. Sweeper has snagged eight passes for 169 yards and three scores. His 21.1 yard-per-catch average would be second in the conference if he had enough catches to qualify.
Kickoff between the Eagles and Indians is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Coverage starts at 12:30 on the Eagle Sports Network with the AEC Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.