College Football: Catawba Preview vs. Carson-Newman
By Mike London
SALISBURY — The biggest of Curtis Walker’s 13 wins as Catawba’s head coach came two years ago on the road at Carson-Newman.
The Indians (1-1) will try to duplicate that success against the Eagles (2-0) this afternoon in Jefferson City, Tenn. Kickoff at Burke-Tarr Stadium is set for 1 p.m.
“We know we won’t catch them sleeping,” Walker said.
This is the SAC opener for both teams. Carson-Newman was picked second in the preseason, while Catawba was predicted to finish fourth.
Catawba’s 219-mile road trip to Jefferson City is the longest on its schedule.
While Carson-Newman has taken six of the last seven meetings, the rivalry between programs that dueled for South Atlantic Conference supremacy from 1999-2003 has been largely rekindled. In addition to Catawba’s stunning 25-22 road win two years ago, the Indians and Eagles staged a classic struggle in 2014 at Shuford Stadium before Carson-Newman prevailed, 35-33.
“We like being a rival of a strong program,” Walker said. “We expect another dogfight, but we enjoy those dogfights.”
It’s one of those games that doesn’t require any rah-rah speeches.
Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks is 327-89 (a 78.5 winning percentage), and he’s 30-6 against a string of Catawba head coaches. All-time, Carson-Newman has ruled the series with Catawba 37-10-1.
So all the Indians will be up for it, and all the Indians know they’ll have to play better than they did in last Saturday’s 35-21 win against Davidson.
“We needed a win and we got one,” said Catawba quarterback Mike Sheehan, who has recovered from a hip injury in the opening-day loss to West Georgia. “But we have a lot of things we can get better at.”
Carson-Newman is unranked after registering a 59-56 win over Cumberlands and a 20-7 victory against Shorter.
While it’s unusual for the Eagles not to be in a national poll, they present the same problem they always do with their veer offense — steady ground gains supplemented by knockout-punch pass plays.
“Everyone on our defense has to do their job,” said Catawba linebacker Jamal Lackey, who has been in on 17 tackles so far. “You take care of your responsibility and trust your teammates.”
Carson-Newman always has exceptional athletes taking care of kick returns and quarterback. QB D’Andre Thomas has thrown for 313 yards, while Damian Baker has rushed for 252. TraShaun Ward has 179 receiving yards, an indication the Eagles go to the air more than they used to.
In the SAC preseason poll, Thomas was voted the first-team quarterback, while Sheehan was named to the second team. Even though they’ll never share the field, that will be a pivotal matchup.
The Indian who knows Thomas best is new Catawba cornerback Case Woodard, who played a little at Carson-Newman as a freshman in 2012.
“We were close,” Woodard said. “I just wasn’t very mature when I was at Carson-Newman. I’ve learned a lot and grown up a lot since then.”
Woodard was playing for Georgia Military College in Milledgeville when former Catawba assistant coach Chris Collins recruited him for Catawba.
“We were looking for an older, more experienced cornerback and Case has a very exciting skill set,” Walker said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Woodard has 12 tackles, three breakups and an interception.
Catawba running back Cary Littlejohn posted a career game against Davidson with 192 rushing yards, so controlling him will be a major part of Carson-Newman’s defensive game plan.
While Catawba prefers a running-back committee, an injury to David Burgess increased Littlejohn’s workload. He was highly productive in 27 workhorse carries against Davidson.
“Cary is going to be the man for at least the next few weeks,” Sheehan said. “He can handle it.”
Catawba hasn’t handled Carson-Newman very often over the years, but the Indians are 8-5 in road games under Walker and are upbeat and optimistic.
“We have to play our best,” Walker said. “But we know we have the opportunity to win.”