Nov. 27, 2009

By Gregg Dewalt
Special to

FLORENCE, Ala. -- It would appear the deck is pretty well stacked against Carson-Newman heading into Saturday's Division II football quarterfinal playoff game against North Alabama.

Consider first that the fifth-ranked Lions beat No. 10 Carson-Newman 31-14 in the second week of the season at the site of this week's game -- Braly Municipal Stadium.

Consider, too, that the Lions (11-1) are 8-1 in nine previous meetings with the Eagles, including a spotless 5-0 mark in Braly Stadium.

Finally, coach Ken Sparks' Eagles (10-2) have never won a game in eight tries against anybody inside the Florence city limits, including three national championship game appearances.

So, what gives Sparks, the veteran C-N coach, a glimmer of hope this time? Is it time the law of averages turns in his favor after so much heartbreak?

Perhaps, but equally important for Sparks is that he is bringing a healthy team into the game -- one that matured as the season progressed. The Eagles have run off 10 consecutive wins since an 0-2 start and would seem to be capable of beating a team he calls "the best team in the country."

"We had a few key players out the first time we played North Alabama and we were still experimenting on our offensive line," Sparks said. "Having (Buck) Wakefield back in the backfield has been huge for us."

Wakefield, one of two 1,000-yard rushers in the Eagles split-veer offense, missed the first meeting with an injury. He's rushed for 1,236 yards and 16 TDs in just nine starts. Quarterback Alex Good has lived up to his surname with 1,138 yards and 13 TDs while throwing 19 more touchdowns.

Turnovers are the other area in which Sparks expects improvement. The Eagles fumbled three times and threw an interception in the 17-point early-season loss.

"That was a problem for us early in the season, but we've started to take better care of the football," he said. "The turnovers were not the only thing that beat us in that game. I saw us miss a lot of tackles and a lot of talented UNA guys running up and down the field. They have players on offense that could play for anybody."

First-year North Alabama coach Terry Bowden has done a masterful job rebuilding UNA's offense by stocking the roster with FBS transfers. After a 2008 semifinal run, the Lions were expected to return only one starter on offense. That changed when quarterback and Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Harrison Beck (North Carolina State) arrived along with talented receivers Preston Parker (Florida State), Mico McSwain (Ole Miss) and T.J. Porter (Pittsburgh).

Beck has thrown for 3,542 yards and 30 touchdowns, and he hasn't had any trouble spreading keeping his receivers happy. The Parker-McSwain-Porter threesome has combined for 23 TD catches and 2,368 yards.

Like Sparks, Bowden said the Lions are better now than in the first meeting.

"We really had known each other for five weeks the first time we played them the first time," he said. "We were very elementary on offense because of that."

"Slowing them down is tough because they have so much speed and a big offensive line," Sparks said of UNA's offense, which averages 41 points per game. "I see no weaknesses in them."

Carson-Newman's running game might be its best defense against the Lions. By grinding out first down after first down and keeping the clock moving, the Eagles can shorten the game and limit UNA's offensive possessions.
Sparks said he is just happy to get another chance to win in Florence.

"We just wanted another game," he said. "It didn't matter who we played. It's a fun challenge for us."