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College Football: Catawba preview

SALISBURY — Carson-Newman visits Shuford Stadium at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
It’s a long-awaited home opener for the Catawba Indians, who are off to good start in head coach Curtis Walker’s second year. Catawba breezed at Davidson, lost on the road at Western Carolina, and then took a huge SAC win in two overtimes at Newberry.
It’s hard to treat Carson-Newman as just another game because it’s not. Catawba has a long-running series with the Eagles from Jefferson City, Tenn., and the Indians have won just 10 of 47 meetings with one tie. Almost every win against Carson-Newman (2-1, 1-0 SAC) quickly became a part of Catawba football folklore.
Catawba (2-1, 1-0 SAC) won in Jefferson City in 2013 in amazing fashion and will be trying on Saturday to win back-to-back in the series for only the second time.
Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks’ teams have won an astounding 320 games, while losing 87 and tying two. His teams have won five national championships and finished second three times. He tied Pop Warner for sixth on the all-time wins list for college coaches last week when Carson-Newman outscored Brevard 55-42. Now he’s three wins behind Bear Bryant.
Sparks ranks No. 1 in wins among active college coaches, but he’s respected more for the way he’s achieved those wins then for how many times he’s won.
“He’s a man of great character,” Walker said.
The bottom line is that if you can beat Carson-Newman, a lot of lofty goals and become realistic. That includes contending for the SAC championship and a Division II playoff berth.
Lenoir-Rhyne played in the D-II national title game in 2013, but Carson-Newman was placed in the role of league favorite by the SAC coaches in the preseason for a reason. When you play Carson-Newman, you aren’t just playing good athletes, you’re playing against a great system.
“Carson-Newman is doing the same things they were doing when I was playing against them in the early 1990s,” Walker said. “Four down linemen on defense. Split back veer offense. They use those wide splits and they run the ball at you and just dare you to stop them.”
Catawba’s defense is all about effort, speed and aggression and getting a bunch of helmets to the football, but that style doesn’t work against Carson-Newman. Carson-Newman is adept at triple-option football, and the Indians can only play their assignment while trusting their teammates to take care of their own responsibility.
“You have to stop the dive first,” Catawba defensive lineman Gabe Evans said. “Then the quarterback, and then the pitch man.”
The fourth element to Carson-Newman’s offense is that while the Eagles don’t throw often, that doesn’t mean they can’t throw. Once they’ve forced the safeties to creep up to the stop the run, they’ll try to hit a big play deep and they always have a talented QB.
Linebacker Jason Taylor will be the heart of Catawba’s defense again on Saturday. He had 14 solo tackles last week against Newberry and is the reigning SAC Player of the Week.
Catawba players sound confident coming off a huge win.
“We showed a lot of character to win at Newberry the way we did because Newberry really got after us at our place last year,” running back David Burgess said. “Now we’ve got another important game. The next game is always the most important.”
Burgess is part of Catawba’s three-man running back crew, along with Cary Littlejohn and Trey Mashore. None of them have amazing individual stats, but together they’ve been very effective.
“All three of us have a different style, and that can make it tough for a defense,” Burgess said.
Catawba is tied for 34th in rushing among D-II schools, a big improvement from a year ago. The bad news is Carson-Newman ranks sixth with 329 rushing yards per game.
Finally, here’s a strange stat. Catawba is 6-2 on the road under Walker but 2-4 at home. The Indians will be trying to change that trend.
“Our guys are excited about finally playing on our own campus,” Walker said.
Follow Mike London on Twitter at @mikelondonpost3.

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