Sparks to coach 400th career game as the second oldest rivalry in Tennessee resumes
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks will stand on C-N's sidelines for the 400th time Saturday when the No. 19 Eagles (5-1, 2-1 SAC) jump back into conference play against Tusculum (3-3, 1-2 SAC) on homecoming Saturday at 3 p.m.
"Homecoming's always a special time at Carson-Newman," Sparks said. "You get to see people you haven't seen in a while, hug ex-players and kiss all their little children. Then we're playing in a very important ball game against a team that will do some things that will probably give us fits."
The meeting is 43rd between the two schools in a series that began in 1904. The rivalry is eight years younger than Tennessee and Vanderbilt's series – which dates back to 1896 – and is the oldest rivalry in the Volunteer State. Carson-Newman leads the all-time series 31-9-2. Sparks is 12-3 all-time against the Pioneers.
The Eagles trumped Tusculum last season 66-36 in an offense shootout that saw Carson-Newman produce three, 150-yard rushers for the first time in the history of the program. Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.), Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) and former C-N quarterback Brandon Haywood all surpassed the mark.
Baker came within a touchdown of C-N's single game scoring record.
As it was last season, Tusculum is led by record-setting quarterback Bo Cordell. Cordell already owns seven DII records and is closing in on several others, including the career passing yardage mark. The 2010 All-America candidate owns the single-season freshman records for most passing yards (3,458 in 2009) and total offensive yards (3,335 in 2009).
He also has the NCAA records for career passing yards per game (349.8 ypg), career total offensive yards per game (353.6 ypg) and career completions per game (30.31 cpg). His 1,243 career completions and 1,937 pass attempts are both NCAA II records. Cordell's 14,340 career passing yards are third all-time and 395 yards off the all-time DII mark of 14,733 held by Zach Amedro of West Liberty from 2007-10.
"He's been their story for a long time," Sparks said. "Last year we we're worried about him throwing it and he ran it (for more than 100 yards) against us. I still remember us trying to chase him down and Bo outrunning some of us. We've got to figure out a way to be consistent on him for four quarters."
Carson-Newman has given up 300 yards passing to all none-option teams this year and has allowed an average of 388 yards to Cordell through his career.
Justin Houston is Cordell's top target, snaring 52 passes for 541 yards and three scores. His receiving yard total is 22nd in the nation, his 52 catches are third.
"We have to get pressure on the quarterback," Sparks said. "And if we do flush him out, we can't let him get first downs. That's a tough thing to balance when you're trying to maintain rush lanes."
Carson-Newman has produced a sack in every game this season with the exception of the opener against Wayne State. The Eagles are coming off a season-high four-sack performance against Shorter. Tusculum allows nearly three sacks a game, 133rd out of 162 Division II teams.
The Eagles' offense both revved up and stalled against Shorter. Carson-Newman produced 500 yards of total offense, it's third such game this year, and scored 45 points. However, the Eagles also lost three fumbles after bringing the ball into Shorter territory.
"We haven't taken big steps forward the last few weeks," Sparks said. "We're past the halfway point. And we haven't done much moving forward. You're either getting better or you're getting worse."
Carson-Newman did get a step forward from one of its tailbacks, Brandon Baker. After spending much of the first half of the year nicked up, Baker exploded against Shorter. The senior tailback rushed for 145 yards - the 12th 100-yard performance of his career and his first since stringing four consecutive 140-yard rushing performances to close out 2012.
Baker averaged 9.1 yards a touch against the Hawks and moved up in the all-time record books as well. He surpassed Floyd Mathis to move into 10th on the all-time rushing list with 2802 yards - 49 away from ninth place Vernon Turner and 198 away from becoming the ninth tailback in Carson-Newman history to surpass 3000 yards in a career. Baker also moved in to ninth on the all-time rushing touchdowns list, with 30, he has surpassed teammate Nate Inman.
Regardless of Baker's game, Carson-Newman will look to improve a red zone offense that's scoring touchdowns 52 percent of the time when entering the opponent's 20, after leading the nation at times in that category last year.
Carson-Newman and Tusculum kick off the Eagles' homecoming contest at 3 p.m. Pregame coverage begins at 2 p.m. on the Eagle Sports Network with the Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM), 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.