Sparks gets 200th SAC win in overtime thriller

WINGATE, N.C. – In a game that featured five ties and a trio of lead changes, Carson-Newman (6-2, 4-2 South Atlantic Conference) came out on top with an 18-yard field goal from Carson Wise(Blacksburg, Va.) in overtime to produce a 41-38 win over no. 21 Wingate (6-2, 3-2 SAC).

The win gives Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks his 200th career South Atlantic Conference victory.  Sparks joins John Gagliardi (St. John’s), Eddie Robinson (Grambling), Larry Kehres (Mount Union) and Roy Kidd (Eastern Kentucky) as coaches to win 200 conference games in their careers.

“I haven’t played a play, so I know what I’m not,” Sparks said. “But what I am is the blessee. So many people who have come through Carson-Newman have blessed me by their presence and their help and devotion down through the years.  Of all the ingredients that go into a winning football team, I couldn’t ask for any more.”

The 41 points the Eagles scored on Wingate are the most that the Bulldogs have given up this season.  Wingate entered the game as the nation’s top scoring defense, allowing just 9.8 points per game.  C-N more than quadrupled that.

The Eagles also gained 464, more than 200 yards above what Wingate (the sixth best team in terms of total defense) was giving up a game.

“We’ve taken some confidence steps and some young guys are growing up,” Sparks said. “I say thank you Lord for allowing us to stay together long enough to start seeing some results.  I hope we use this to honor the Lord.”

Wingate got the scoring started with a pounding 16-play, 94-yard drive that came after the Eagles turned it over on down inside their own 10-yard line.  The Bulldogs converted on three third downs on the drive and produced six first downs en route to Lawrence Pittman pounding into the end zone on a three-yard carry off right tackle.

However, the Eagles answered the bell quickly.  TraShaun Ward (Miami, Fla.) took the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to the house to tie the game.  In more than 100 career kickoff returns and more than 2,200 career return yards (Carson-Newman’s all-time leader in both categories), Ward had never found the endzone.  That changed when he got the kickoff along the boundary left at the 15, weaved right over the middle of the field and then bounced it out to the right sideline to beat Wingate kicker Caleb Baird.

After Carson-Newman’s defense forced the Bulldogs off the field with a Phalen Booker (Waveland, Miss.) sack.  Carson-Newman went six plays and 46 yards to grab the lead on a Jamal Jones (Chattanooga, Tenn.) counter left that covered 20 yards.  It was just the third score of 20 yards or longer that Wingate has allowed this season.

The second half saw the offenses rev up immediately.  Wingate got the party started offensively with a six-play, 47-yard possession that ended in Lawrence Pittman’s second score of the day – a one yard run over right guard that knotted the score at 14.

The Eagles wasted little time responding.  A seven-play, 46-yard drive was all it took for De’Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) to find Ward on a 14-yard out route on the left side of the end zone.

The teams swapped scores and three-and-outs until Wingate seemed to break through early in the fourth.  The Bulldogs faced a third-and-10 from their own 26.  However, quarterback Kyle Johnson found Jody Fuller on a post over the middle of the field and outraced the Eagles secondary to pull the Bulldogs even 28-28 with 14:02 left in the fourth.

Carson-Newman marched the ball to midfield on the ensuing possession; however, Montavious Taylor was stripped and Eric Mapoles returned the fumble down to the Eagles’ one.  The Bulldogs would grab their first lead since it was 7-0 one play later on a two-yard pass to back-up tight end Greyson Cobb in the back right corner of the end zone.

With Wingate leading 35-28, Carson-Newman wasted little time responding.  On a drive that featured an Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) halfback pass to Ward, Carson-Newman knotted the game a Thomas two-yard QB sneak.  It marked Thomas’ 39th career rushing touchdown, which moves him into a tie for fifth on the all-time list with former Carson-Newman quarterback Alex Good.

The Eagles defense then rose to the occasion, forcing Wingate off the field with a three-and-out.  The momentum swung back in Carson-Newman’s direction on the ensuing drive.  The Eagles methodically marched down the field before their drive stalled out at the Wingate 16.  On the 14th play of the possession, Wise booted a 33-yard field goal to give the Eagles’ a 38-35 cushion following the 5:39 trip down the field.

The Bulldogs forced overtime when Caleb Baird drilled a career-long 46-yard field goal.

The overtime period started with Wingate on offense.  The Bulldogs pushed the ball down to the 18 to set up a 35-yard field goal for Baird.  The Wingate kicker shanked it badly to the left to open the window for the Eagles.

Carson-Newman pushed the ball inside the 10 on a Montavious Taylor (Atlanta, Ga.) run on a pitch left.  The Eagles got the ball down to the one-inch line on a Thomas quarterback sneak to bring out Wise for the deciding field goal from the left hash.

On Wise’s first run, Wingate head coach Joe Reich called timeout.  On try two, Wise pushed the ball wide left with the Bulldog’s Nortavious Otis standing to his right (Otis was well offside).  On try three, well, it was a charm.  Wise punched the 18-yarder through the uprights and then was mobbed by his teammates as the Eagles collected the win.

“Carson had a great pregame warmup,” Sparks said. “The ball was exploding off his foot.  I had full confidence in him.”

The overtime affair was Carson-Newman’s first since 2010 when the Eagles dropped a 38-35 contest to Wingate at Burke-Tarr Stadium.  It snaps a three-game losing streak for the Eagles in overtime games.  Carson-Newman hadn’t won an overtime contest since beating Catawba 40-34 in OT in 2001.

“My heart rejoices for the faith of a group of kids who managed to turn the corner for us in overtime today,” Sparks said. “It’s good to have a players we believe in, including our snapper, our holder and our kicker.  The kicking game helped win us this ball game. I rejoice that we had some guys who helped us win this football game today.”

Carson-Newman was led on the ground by Taylor, who carried the ball a career-high 20 times for 143 yards.  Damian Baker (Columbus, Miss.) added 89 yards on 17 carries.  Thomas had 72 yards rushing and two scores.

Wingate rusher Lawrence Pittman ran 24 times for 115 yards and two scores to lead the Bulldogs.

Ward caught four passes for 69 yards and a score to lead the Eagles through the air, Jordan Berry had three catches and 23 yards to lead the Bulldogs.

Xavier McFadden (Rock Hill, S.C.) and Sha’Heem Stupart (Clovers, S.C.) led C-N defensively with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively.

Booker proved to be a thorn in the side of the Wingate backfield all afternoon.  He made six tackles and had two sacks.

The win snaps a three-game losing streak for the Eagles against ranked competition.

The Eagles finish up their regular season road schedule on Halloween at Limestone.  Kickoff with the Saints is set for 2 p.m. with coverage on the Eagle Sports Network starting at 1 p.m. with the Appalachian Electric Cooperative Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.

(Courtesy Carson-Newman Athletics)

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