October 18th, 2023 8:00am
How are we in week eight already?!?!?! This season is flying by and there is another excellent weekend of SAC football to look forward to, including the 12th annual “Gladwin Bowl” between Mars Hill and Carson-Newman. We also will get our first release of the NCAA’s regional rankings in the coming days, but below we will look at each SAC program’s playoff outlook.
As I mentioned in my first column of the season, there is only one game a year where I openly hope for a certain SAC program to lose, and that game is this weekend. As my bio says, I am a Carson-Newman alum. My sister is an alum of Mars Hill. So, every year, the “Gladwin Bowl” loser must wear the other school’s gear to work on the Monday following the game. There is nothing against the wonderful and fine folks at Mars Hill and I wish the players and coaches the best of luck, but I would prefer not to have to wear Lions gear to work for the 2nd year in a row. 😊
In the Hunt
Living on a Prayer
Emory & Henry (3-4)
Mars Hill (5-1)
UVA Wise (0-6)
*-Records indicate record vs. D2 competition only, as this is all that matters when it comes to playoff selection.
SAC Power Rankings
SAC Players of the Week
Offense: Matthew Palazzo (Tusculum)-314 yards, 3 TD’s, 1 rushing TD.
Defense: Chandler Matthews (Limestone)-15 tackles, 2 TFL’s and a forced fumble.
Special Teams: Nicholas Pope (Tusculum)-7 punts, 40 yards per. Three inside the 20 and 4 fair caught.
Last Week: 5-1
Tusculum (4-3, 4-1) at Emory & Henry (3-4, 1-4)
The Pioneers kept on rolling and are now 4-1 in their last five games and 4-2 in D2 play. Every game is a must win game though for Coach Odom’s team, as it’s dangerous to try and make the postseason with 3 D2 losses. Even though his completion percentage wasn’t something to write home about, Matthew Palazzo hit Tyler Burke and Joe Robustelli on two long touchdown passes to finish with 314 yards. The defense kept UVA Wise from getting anything going and forced a couple turnovers to even out the turnover battle again. The Pioneers still turn the ball over way too much for my liking and I think sometimes it feels like a competition: can the offense give up the ball more or the defense force more?
Emory & Henry lost a tough game against division leading Mars Hill last weekend, but there were some bright spots for the Wasps. The Good: With Charles Mutter III and Kyle Short out, redshirt freshman Cole Lambert stepped in and had a decent day for his first collegiate appearance. J’Quan Anderson had another solid game as well. The Wasps defense played very well in the 2nd half and will look to carry that momentum into this week, led by the leading tackler in the league Kaleb Lundy. The bad: the Wasps offensive fizzled out like a three-day old soda left open and the offensive line got smacked again.
I’m riding with the hot hand in this one and picking Tusculum to win. The Pioneers are winning close games and overcoming their own turnover issues by causing turnovers. Over the past five games, the defense has given up 17.4 PPG while scoring 26.8. Unfortunately, it’s hard to trust the Emory & Henry offense right now to make enough plays in the air to keep Odom’s crew from loading the box against J’Quan Anderson. If the Wasps defense plays like they did in the 2nd half against Mars Hill, they absolutely have a shot in this game, but the secondary will have their hands full. Mr. Palazzo is on heater right now.
Mars Hill (5-1, 4-1) at Carson-Newman (3-4, 2-3)
Mars Hill played excellently in the first half against Emory & Henry last week, but after a 75-yard drive to start the 2nd half the Lions offense took a nap. The next six drives netted just 31 yards, but the game wasn’t really in question because the Lions defense matched the Wasps performance. JR Martin had an okay day behind center, but the offense was led by Jon Gullette being a workhorse (29 carries for 87 yards), Malik Laurent and Simeon Thompson finding the endzone and Beau DeBerry with a stellar game. #MakeTightEndsGreatAgain.
The Eagles defense bailed them out of what would’ve been arguably one of the worst losses in the program’s history since I was a freshman in 2007. Three fourth quarter fumbles gave the Flying Fleet a chance to pull off the stunner, but multiple red zone defensive stands held off the upset bid. Major Williams and the rest of the defense were not going to let it happen. The Eagles were 3 of 10 on 3rd down and outside of Jayden Sullins 71-yard touchdown run struggled to move the ball against Erskine’s defense. The Eagle faithful are hoping it was just an off night after the tough rivalry loss the week before, and the talented Eagles are looking to pull off an upset of their own this weekend.
Mars Hill, almost unnoticed, has been a really good football team this year and I believe would be in the postseason if the season ended today. Their offense has put up a lot of yards but doesn’t always convert that into points and are middle of the league in red zone %. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the Lions defense is just as tough. Last season the Lions buried the Eagles early, but Carson-Newman has shown this year if you let them hang around, they can put the fear of Jesus into you. If the Eagles can put together some long, time consuming drives and put points on the board, I think they have a chance especially if the defense isn’t on the field for 35+ minutes. I’m having a hard time putting the performance against Erskine out of my mind. But right now, Mars Hill is playing much better and I believe they will get the win in Mossy Creek.
Erskine (0-7, 0-5) at UVA Wise (1-6, 0-5)
Erskine had their chances to get their first win of 2023 but were unable to take advantage of the multitude of Carson-Newman mistakes. Craig Pender had his 2nd highest passing total of the season, and Jamaar Moore had 10 catches for 87 yards. Several late defensive stands were the difference, but Coach Boyd’s crew took a few years off the lives of Eagle fans. I said before, they may not be the most talented team, but they fight until the last whistle.
The Cavaliers of UVA Wise were never really in the game against the Pioneers and are hoping to break their six-game losing streak this week at home. Coach Damron’s crew had issues getting anything going offensively, though Jake Corkren looked significantly better than the past few weeks. Jae Gillespie didn’t have a lot of running room against the stout Tusculum defense, but Seth Fischbach had a solid game (6 grabs for 83 yards and a TD). The Cavaliers have had a tough 2023 season, but they still have a chance to play spoiler in the mountain division and ruin other teams’ seasons.
Somebody is getting their first SAC win of the 2023 season and breaking a losing streak! Thank you, Lord, for no more ties in college football. I believe this could be one of the better games this weekend because you have two teams that are scrappy and don’t quit. UVA Wise has the advantage on both sides of the ball, and I like them to win. The difference maker? UVA Wise is the best in the conference in the red zone at nearly 93%. The only issue for the Cavaliers is they are the most penalized team in the league, while Erskine is the least. If Damron’s crew can keep the penalties down and give my guy Jae Gillespie some running lanes I think they can get the job done.
Wingate (4-3, 3-2) at Barton (5-2, 3-2)
Wingate suffered a tough loss on homecoming to Limestone, 17-10 Saturday. The Saints DL had Brooks Bentley running most of the day and refused to let Alexander Wilson get anything going running the ball. The Bulldogs wide receivers made some tremendous catches (Evan McCray and Tremel Jones were DAWGS), but the offense just couldn’t get out of their own way, especially early. What goes unnoticed is that Wingate’s defense played very well considering how electric Limestone’s offense is, and the defense kept them in the game. I also thought with Tre Stewart out and Limestone (assumingly) would pass a lot more that the Wingate defense would get more than 3 sacks.
Barton is looking to hit the reset button so hard that it breaks, after getting a mudhole stomped in them in Hickory, 47-3 on Saturday. I didn’t pick the Bulldogs to win, but I thought it’d be more competitive after seeing Limestone run wild on the Bears defense. Lynch had his first subpar game in a while and Terrell had his 2nd lowest rushing total of the season. That’s the bad news. The good news is the Bulldogs are still in the playoff hunt and have time to get things going again, but it’s in emergency mode now.
In what I am deeming the Battle of the Bulldogs, I think we are going to get a heavyweight physical game with two teams who know their season is on the lines. Wingate already has three losses, and Barton wants to avoid a third. If Barton is going to right the ship (losers of 2 of their last 3), the passing game is going to have to have a good day so they can open running lanes for the monster in the backfield. For Wingate, some key factors are improvement from the OL; establishing the run (Barton is 11th against the run in the league); and protecting the football. Turning the ball over is never good but their turnovers last weekend were all gut punches. You have to give Bentley time.
I’ll take the Bulldogs 😉
#11 Lenoir-Rhyne (7-0, 5-0) at Newberry (4-3, 3-2)
Probably the most surprising outcome of the weekend was Lenoir-Rhyne absolutely throttling Barton, with the Bears playing their most complete game of the season. They beat Barton so badly it’s considered a crime in most states. Jalen Ferguson had his best game as a Bear, completing 19 of 24 passes for 241 yards and three scores. DeAree Rogers had another stellar game, and that young man doesn’t get talked about enough when we talk about the high-level wide receivers in the SAC. Lenoir-Rhyne finished with 515 yards of total offense to Barton’s 148. The defense was tremendous, shutting down the three headed monster of Lynch-Terrell-Johnson and looked faster, stronger and more physical than I’ve seen them all year. Coach Jacobs crew is rolling.
The Wolves got a much-needed win at home Saturday, snapping a two-game losing streak and keeping slim playoff hopes alive. Newberry ended the game on a 21-7 run and had arguably its best offensive performance of the season. Jy Tolen was efficient in the air, albeit just 122 yards. But the Wolves ground game pounded the Indians with four guys rushing for at least 62 yards. The duo of Dwayne Wright and Trakell Murray carries the ball 35 times for 238 yards. Keith Desaussure added 66 yards and Jy Tolen 62. When Coach Knight’s crew can get the run game going, they are tough to beat.
The last ten Bishop Trophy games have been split right down the middle, with Newberry winning the last two. But the Bears have won 2 of the last 3 in the Graveyard. Rivalry games always bring out the best in the competing teams, and I’m hoping that stays true here. For the Wolves to keep the trophy in Newberry, they are going to need to play as good if not their best game of the season. Lenoir-Rhyne is coming off a tremendous performance and does not want their undefeated run stopped now. When clicking the offense can beat you in multiple ways and will try to take away the Newberry run game. If Tolen can make some plays and the Wolves can force some Graveyard magic, they have a chance. I’m going with the Bears to move to 8-0.
Catawba (3-4, 1-4) at Limestone (4-3, 4-1)
Catawba held a 24-17 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter against rival Newberry, before the Wolves scored 21 unanswered points and won 38-31. The Indians defense got shredded, giving up nearly 500 yards (372 on the ground alone) and struggled to get anything really going on offense. Preston Brown had just 152 yards passing, well below his season average. Marquece Williams had two touchdown runs and led the way on the ground attack. After the 2-0 start, the Indians have dropped 4 of 5 and are currently sitting in the basement in the Piedmont. But this is not a fair reflection of this team, who has played very good football for new head coach Tyler Haines through 7 weeks.
Limestone walked out of Irwin Belk Stadium on Wingate’s homecoming with a physical victory. Despite not having their beast in the backfield Tre Stewart, Limestone’s offense took the “death by 1,000 papercuts” approach, putting together long scoring drives and keeping the Wingate defense on the field, including two scoring drives of 13 plays and 18 plays. Dustin Noller had a good game and the Limestone receiving core made catch after catch. That is such a deep group. The Saints dominated the Bulldogs offensive line and had Bentley running for his life. Limestone’s defense was physical and played with an edge all day, led by SAC Defensive POTW Chandler Matthews. Young man looked like Luke Kuechly in his prime out there. My only concern was the kicking game. I thought for sure it would come back to bite Limestone.
This game reeks of a track meet. Both offenses are elite, and I believe this game pits the two best quarterbacks in the conference against each other. What separates these two though for me is the defenses trending in opposite directions. Catawba’s defense has been solid most of the year but has been getting run lately, now sitting in 10th in total defense. Meanwhile Limestone, who’s defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed last season, has been very good and has a bunch of dudes who play with some attitude. If Tre Stewart is healthy, Limestone’s advantage stretches but even in his absence they ran the ball somewhat against Wingate. I look for Limestone to have more drives in the 12-16 play range and soak up clock to keep the ball out of Preston Brown’s hands. Give me the Saints.
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