Dec. 4, 2009

By John Raffel
Special To

Carson-Newman lost its first two football games of the season, but coach Ken Sparks never lost confidence in the championship potential of his football program.

Eleven victories later, the 10th ranked Eagles (11-2) from Jefferson City, Tenn., will be making their first appearance in a decade in the NCAA Division II football semifinals. They will face No. 3 Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., Saturday at 3:30 p.m., at Lubbers Stadium, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN.

The Lakers, at 12-1, are making their fourth appearance in the last five years in the semifinals and have won national titles in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006.

“It didn't happen real early for us,” said Sparks, in his 30th year as coach of the Eagles. “When you lose the first two, it kind of shakes your confidence of what you can do. The growth has been phenomenal. The character development and maturity has been encouraging to me personally.”

The Eagles are No. 1 in rushing offense (349 yards per game) and No. 4 in total offense (486.85). Grand Valley State is 11th in total offense (458.69) and ninth in rushing offense (233.23)

Both teams won on the road in their national quarterfinal appearances last weekend. Carson-Newman edged No. 5 North Alabama, 24-21, while Grand Valley State defeated defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, 24-10. The Lakers avenged a quarterfinal setback to M-D in 2008. Among C-N's losses was a 31-14 setback to North Alabama in the second game of the season.

Chuck Martin was also coach for Grand Valley State's two most recent national title teams. He's one win away from another appearance in next week's national championship game but is fully aware of the challenge coming up Saturday.

“It's going to take a great effort,” Martin said. “(Carson-Newman's) athletes aren't what we see in our league. They're explosive at every position offensively and defensively. The speed of the game will take a little bit for our kids to get used to. We have plenty of good athletes.

“They run the split-back veer. Coach Sparks has been running it for over 30 years and they've been running it with a lot of success. We have six days to prepare for something they've been doing all their lives.”

Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Brad Iciek, a senior quarterback, leads the Grand Valley State offense, having completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards and 31 touchdowns. He is ranked second nationally in passing efficiency with a 174.11 rating.

“We're very excited. We're thankful for the opportunity to play another week,” Iciek said. “We're happy to be in this position.”

Lakers junior running back James Berezik has 1,206 yards on 211 carries

“They're a very impressive football team,” Sparks said. “As you would expect this time of year, there are no bad teams left.”

The Eagles are led by quarterback Alex Good with 1,211 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns to go along with 1,758 passing yards and 19 touchdown passes.

“Grand Valley has a great tradition,” Good said. “We'll have to take advantage of the opportunities we get.”

Senior running back Buck Wakefield leads the Eagles with 1,396 yards rushing. C-N junior safety Mario Russell leads the team in tackles with 93.

“They're by far the most athletic team we'll see this year,” Iciek said. “They score a lot of points. It's a different animal when you look at their defense. It will all come down to execution. We'll see what they give us and try to attack it.”

Grand Valley State has the No. 9 rushing defense in the country, allowing just 83.85 yards per game on the ground.

“Anytime you can defend the run and then if you have a good offense like we do and get leads, you have a lot better chance defending the pass if you know they have to try to throw it to win the game,” Martin said. “Getting leads has been a big key for us this season. Hopefully, we can do a similar thing on Saturday.”

The Lakers are led defensively by linebacker Justin Victor with 91 tackles, including 12 for loss.

In the only other meeting between the two teams, Carson-Newman beat the Lakers, 42-9, in 1984.

Saturday's game could feature snow flurries with temperatures in the 30s.

“I don't think the home field advantage at this point of the season matters a whole lot,” Iciek said. “But we have a nice atmosphere when all our fans get into the student section in the end zone.”