Eagles battle Blazers for semifinal berth
No. 22 and second-seeded Carson-Newman (9-2) has a shot to make it back to the national semifinals with its quarterfinal contest Saturday at noon against top seed and no. 17 Valdosta State (9-2).
The Eagles last made it past the quarters in 2009 before succumbing to Grand Valley State in the semis. While it was the Lakers who ended the Eagles last playoff experience shy of the title game, it was Valdosta State that knocked Carson-Newman out of the playoffs the previous two times (2004 and 2008).
C-N and VSU are familiar playoff foes. Of the teams’ six overall meetings (series split 3-3), five have come in postseason play.
“They are big, fast, talented and experienced,” Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks said. “Just about any descriptive word you can think of. They are by far the best football team we’ll have faced all year.”
The Blazers can boast of two, 800-yard rushers in Austin Scott and Cedric O’Neal, a 2,000-yard passer in Oklahoma transfer Cayden Cochran and an 800-yard receiver in Gerald Ford. Ford and Cochran are both first team Daktronics All-Region selections. Carson-Newman’s center Kevin Day (Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.) and running back Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.) joined the Blazer duo on the first team offense.
“They’ve got a good scheme,” Sparks said. “They’ve got five senior offensive linemen. That’s the secret to their whole team and then you throw in a bunch of Division I transfers, it makes for a good team that can run and throw.”
The Blazers put a school record 16 players on the Gulf South Conference’s post season teams, including offensive linemen and pro prospects Ryan Schraeder and Edmund Kugbila. Four the Blazers 16 selections came from the offensive line.
The matchup features two of the most potent offenses in the nation. The Eagles average 40.73 points a game (14th nationally), while Valdosta puts up 42.2 a game (12th nationally).
The Eagles are unbeaten this year when scoring 30 points or more, including a win over L-R in the second round 38-35. Valdosta State has been held under 30 just once on its current seven-game winning streak, but the Blazers managed to gut out a 24-21 win on Oct. 13 in that win over North Alabama.
The Eagles took an extra travel day to make the nearly 500-mile trek to southern Georgia by bus. Sparks said the trip’s distance adds another wrinkle into the mix.
“The travel makes it for a tough one. What’s life without some good challenges in life and this is another one. This group of kids doesn’t understand anything less than going out there and seeing what they can get done.”
All told, the 33-year head coach is just happy to be one of eight teams left.
“Our trainer (Mike Van Bruggen) made a comment, ‘Good! I get to tape ankles in December for football.’ That’s pretty good for us to be playing right now.”
Carson-Newman and Valdosta State kickoff at noon. Pregame coverage begins on the Coca-Cola Eagle Sports Network at 11 a.m. with the Farm Bureau Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and online at cneagles.com.