VIDEO: Mike Turner Press Conference
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – No. 25 Carson-Newman (9-2) will effort to do something no other Eagle ball club has done in 26 previous trips to postseason play Saturday at Moretz Stadium at 2 p.m. in Hickory, N.C. – win two road playoff games in the same year.
Unbeaten and sixth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne (12-0) is the impediment in the way of the Eagles' goal and a spot in the regional final for the first time since 2012.
Carson-Newman advanced to the second round with a 17-9 win at previously unbeaten and 11th-ranked Bowie State. Lenoir-Rhyne mauled SIAC Champion Miles 36-7.
"It's a privilege and an honor for our kids to be in the NCAA playoffs," Carson-Newman head football coach Mike Turner said. "It's a great atmosphere to be a part of and to be able to play in the second round of the playoffs – it's special. It's special that we're playing football on Thanksgiving week. We get to be together at a time that a lot of people are with their families and this is their family right now. We understand what it is to know you're blessed many times over, to spend some quality time with each other and still have an opportunity to go play a great football team like Lenoir-Rhyne."
Carson-Newman is looking for the first pair of road playoff wins in a single season in school history. The Eagles are just 8-18-1 in road playoff games, 3-15 since moving to Division II. Granted, some of this is due to lack of opportunity. In 26 trips to the playoffs and with a 40-20-1 postseason record, this is just the third time C-N has played multiple road playoff games.
The Eagles beat North Alabama 24-21 in Florence before losing to Grand Valley State 41-27 in 2009. In 1987, the Eagles opened the first round with a 26-13 win at Central State before falling in Lawton, Okla. to Cameron 30-2 in the Champion Bowl.
This is Carson-Newman's second visit to Lenoir-Rhyne for a postseason contest. The Eagles travelled to Hickory exactly six years ago to the day, losing 27-20 to the Bears. Third-string quarterback Josh Justice rallied Lenoir-Rhyne from a 20-10 halftime deficit. Justice tied the game on a four-yard option keeper with seven seconds left in the third quarter before winning it with 4:49 to play with a 10-yard pass to Greyson Wells to cap an 11-play, 92-yard drive.
Carson-Newman's potential game-tying drive stalled out in L-R territory at the 32 after intentional grounding was called on then sophomore quarterback De'Andre Thomas.
This marks the seventh time in program history that C-N has played a team twice in one season. Carson-Newman is 5-1 in those second playoff meetings. The 2013 Lenoir-Rhyne team is the only foe that has knocked C-N down twice in one year. Carson-Newman lost earlier this season to the Bears 36-23 on Oct. 19.
The Bears are 12-0 for the first time in their 100-year existence as a football program.
"They're 12-0," Turner said. "That says enough about what kind of quality of football team they are. We also know that the last time we were over there we had great expectations, we made some mistakes early and spotted them 16 points. Fought our way back, there was no give up, no quit in those kids. So, we know it's going to be a great challenge. We have got to play like we're playing, make sure that we're Carson-Newman and we play like Carson-Newman. We can't get caught up in anything going around except getting caught up in us."
Lenoir-Rhyne and Carson-Newman have swapped positioning all year long in who has the SAC's best offense and defense.
Lenoir-Rhyne has the edge in most categories after the first week of the playoffs. The Bears have the conference's top offense, averaging 437 yards per game to C-N's 427. L-R ranks tops in the SAC in scoring offense too, averaging 41.8 points compared to C-N's 38.3.
Defensively, the Bears have the league's best scoring defense allowing 15.7 points per game. C-N ranks second and 32nd nationally allowing 19.7. The Bears have the league's best rush defense, while C-N led the SAC in pass defense at the conclusion of the regular season. Overall, both teams have limited their foes to less than 300 yards of total offense on average. The Eagles give up 299 yards per game to the Bears 279.
Lenoir-Rhyne's defense has been powered by SAC Defensive Player of the Year, Harlon Hill Trophy Nominee and Gene Upshaw Award Finalist Jaquan Artis.
The defensive lineman led the SAC in sacks with 12 and is ranked ninth in NCAA Division II in sacks per game, averaging 1.05 per game. He made 65 total tackles this season, including 36 solo tackles, with 19.5 tackles for loss, accounting for 95 yards. Behind his leadership, the Bears rank No. 4 in the nation in team sacks and they are No. 6 in rushing defense allowing just 77.1 yards per game on the ground.
"They're big, strong people. They move well to the football," Turner said. "They're very, very sound in their technique. They're attackers, they're going to attack the line of scrimmage the same way we've got to attack it on offense. When you've got the Defensive Player of the Year in that group and two or three, four others around him, they're a solid defensive front."
Carson-Newman will look to counter with its own Harlon Hill nominee in running back Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.)
Wimbush became the fourth member of Carson-Newman's 3,500-yard rushing club against Mars Hill. He is third all-time in rushing yards with 3,912. Wimbush needs 88 yards to become C-N's third all-time 4,000 yard rusher. He is 130 yards away from second and Kenneth Tyson, and 244 yards away from first and Robert Thomas.
"To see a guy like Antonio perform like the way he's performed down the stretch. To have over 200 yards production in a game rushing the football and catching a catch and a throw there last week," Turner said. "He is what you look for in Carson-Newman running back. He's setting the legacy for himself and for those running backs to come in the future."
Wimbush's next 100-yard performance would give him 18 for his career, moving him into sole possession of second all-time. Wimbush is the sixth player in program his- tory with 40 career rushing touchdowns. He needs two more rushing TDs to catch De'Andre Thomas for fourth (43) on the all-time list.
Desmond Fairell's next interception will be his 20th in his career. He needs five more picks to catch Mike Schlecter and Chuck Proffitt for the all-time record. The seven interceptions Fairell has this year are tied for the third most for a single-season in school history. His next pick will move him into a seven-way tie for the third-most in school history for one year. Al Canty holds the single season record with 11 set in 1972.
Carson-Newman has picked off 21 passes this year. The picks are tied for the fifth most in a single season. Carson-Newman is fifth nationally this year with its 21 picks. C-N has picked off multiple passes seven times this year.
Lenoir-Rhyne has won 12 straight games, the second longest active streak in the country. The Bears 14-game home winning streak is the nation's best. The Bears last home loss was to Carson-Newman on Nov. 4, 2017. L-R head coach Drew Cronic has never at home
Kickoff between Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne is set for 2 p.m. Saturday. Coverage will be available one hour prior to gametime with the AEC Tailgate Show on the Eagle Sports Network on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and online at cneagles.com/live.