Chuck Bitner

SAC Week 5 Preview

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More reasons to appreciate D2

Unless you’ve been away from the internet or sports radio this entire week, you probably heard that a fairly major story broke in the world of college basketball regarding the recruitment of highly coveted athletes. I’m not going to comment on that as it’s way out of my territory, but I will say that when things like that happen in college sports, it gives me even more appreciation for Division II.

I can’t say that there has never been scandal or controversy in D2, but any impropriety that we’ve seen over the years is nothing near the level of egregiousness that we see in Division I. It really makes me appreciate what we have in D2 and gives me even greater admiration for the people that we trust to run the programs that we love. It takes a special kind of coach to lead a D2 football program. It is a tremendous amount of work and often provides less compensation than assistant coach positions at higher levels. It is a very demanding job. We’re fortunate to have so many dedicated coaches in the South Atlantic Conference who run their programs the right way. Men like Tim Clifton (25 years at Mars Hill), Mike Turner (34 total years at Carson-Newman), Joe Reich (17 years at Wingate) and Todd Knight (15 total years at Newberry). In a few more years we’ll add more names to that list of veteran coaches we’re very lucky to have in our conference.

Keep that in mind when your team loses a game they could have won. Sure, its disappointing when that happens. But be thankful that the players at your school are being led by coaches who do things the right way and that make decisions that are in the best interests of the student-athletes.

Just another of many reasons why I love Division II.

Ranking the SAC
As we are starting to approach the mid-point of the season, we’re seeing the season take shape. Wingate and Catawba are the clear leaders so far as both are 4-0 overall. In conference play, Wingate is the only 2-0 team, while Catawba, Limestone and Newberry have all been victorious in their only conference games. Mars Hill is 1-1, Tusculum is 0-1 and Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne have lost both SAC games.

Here is a look at how I rank the eight SAC members after four weeks.

1. Catawba: The Indians were pushed by a talented Mars Hill team last Saturday night, but aside from a couple of big plays, the defense had the game in control for most of the way. The D forced five turnovers and sacked Mars Hill QB David Salmon four times. The downside to Catawba’s night was that they were flagged 10 times for 80 yards. Catawba continues to lead the SAC in total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense, making them the obvious choice at the top of the standings.

2. Wingate: The Bulldogs faced a tougher fight than I expected at Lenoir-Rhyne last week, but they won on the road, at night for the third time in four weeks. No small feat there. It was a bit of throwback kind of game (only 8 possessions for each team) which is a style that favors the Bulldogs. Wingate now has a well-timed week off to prepare for the brunt of the SAC schedule.

3. Newberry: The Wolves faced a lot of challenges last week at Carson-Newman but they overcame adversity, took advantage of opportunity and made big plays when they had to have them. The win evened their record at 2-2 and got them off to a good start at defending the conference championship. The Wolves now have three home games in the next four weeks.

4. Carson-Newman: Devastating is about the only word I can think of for the last two weeks of Carson-Newman football. The Eagles are two plays away from being number one on this list. They could have – and possibly should have – won at Wingate and at home last week against Newberry. Inexcusable turnovers doomed them in both games. The Eagles have a combined 3 second half points in the last two games. Not good enough when you need to beat teams like Wingate and Newberry.

5. Tusculum: What a bounce back for Tusculum. The Pioneers couldn’t find ways to win at Limestone two weeks ago, despite numerous gifts from the home team, but they got it done at UNCP last Saturday night. The offense got back on track with a solid night and the defense continues to be strong. The Pioneers are second in the SAC in rush defense (119ypg) and number 1 in takeaways (14) and defensive touchdowns (3). The comparisons with Tusculum, Mars Hill and Limestone are really close, but I give a slight edge to the Pioneers because of the impressive road win at UNCP.

6. Mars Hill: The Lions battled a heck of team in Catawba last week. The defense stood tall against one of the better offensive teams in SR2, but the normally reliable offense made too many mistakes. A critical turnover came early in the game when the Lions were trailing 10-7. They marched the field, but turned the ball over at the goal line, setting the tone for the rest of the night. Had they scored in that situation, the remainder of the game could have played out differently.

7. Limestone: Limestone was close to extending their game into overtime for the third straight week, but couldn’t quite come up with the big play they needed on the final drive. The defense continues to play very well, but the offense, while productive at times, is still a little too inconsistent.

8. Lenoir-Rhyne: The Bears looked tough in last week’s loss to Wingate. It was tight the whole way, but Wingate finally pushed the lead out to two scores with 11 minutes left in the game. It looked like that would be what the Bulldogs needed to take control, but LR wasn’t having it. They responded with an 83 yard scoring drive to cut the lead back down to five points. They mismanaged the clock a bit on the last drive (they should not have run out of time) but to have a chance at a game tying score on the final possession against a good team was a big step in the right direction. Responding with the 4th quarter TD when their backs were against the wall was even bigger, and hopefully a sign of what’s to come.

Week Five Game Previews

Wingate has the weekend off, so we have only four games on the schedule this weekend. All four should be very even and interesting matchups. We also have a pair of early afternoon games, which have been a rarity so far this season. The best thing about a mixture of afternoon and evening kickoffs is that it allows a crazy person like myself to put in a double-header. This weekend I’ll be at both Mars Hill and Tusculum.

Limestone (2-2, 1-0) at Mars Hill (2-2, 1-1) 1:00
This should be a very even and very enjoyable match up to watch. Mars Hill has the experienced quarterback and playmakers on offense, Limestone has the tenacious defense that allows less than 300 total yards per game.

Limestone is finding ways to make things happen, even if they are struggling in some aspect of the game. That makes them a little dangerous. That said, they need to be more consistent on offense if they are going to knock off some of the tough teams that await on the schedule. If they’re going to hit a stride, now is the time to do it. Mars Hill played courageously on defense last week against a good Catawba offense, but overall, they are still allowing more yards per game than any other team in the SAC.

Limestone is last in the SAC in passing offense, but Mars Hill’s defense is last in passing defense. It’s an opportunity for one of those units to step up their play and make a big difference in the outcome. Limestone doesn’t have to be perfect if they can continue to make a few big plays when they really need them. I think they can do that in this game. The defense is smarting a little bit from a big rushing performance by NGU last week, but Mars Hill won’t run the ball nearly as much or as well. Limestone’s D should have a better day.

I see this as a close one that can go either way. I like Limestone’s big play potential as a difference maker, but give a slight edge to the home team as they try to get the offense humming again.

Mars Hill 28 Limestone 27

Catawba (4-0, 1-0) at Carson-Newman (2-2, 0-2) 1:00
The last two games have been really tough to take for Carson-Newman, but there would be no better way to atone for it than to take down unbeaten Catawba in front of the home crowd at the Creek. And the Eagles definitely have the talent to do it.

Catawba has been really impressive through four weeks, but they’re not unbeatable. Last week’s game came down to big plays by the offense and takeaways by the defense. If they meet up with a team that can minimize big plays and not turn the ball over, they’ll be in a 60 minute game.

The question is, is Carson-Newman the team to do that? Evidence would suggest yes…and no. The Eagles’ defense is formidable, especially at the line of scrimmage. They lead the SAC with only 94 rushing yards allowed per game and they have nine sacks. I think they have the defense to hang with Catawba’s league leading offense.

The real variable is turnovers. I’m convinced the Eagles would be 4-0 if not for a couple of critical turnovers in the last two games. If they don’t give the ball away, I think this will be one of the best games of the year in the SAC. But the problem with a strong defense like Catawba’s is that they are really good at forcing opponents into mistakes. They create turnovers by forcing early and errant throws from quarterbacks (Mars Hill’s David Salmon threw three last week) and they gang tackle extremely well, which leads to forced fumbles.

If Carson-Newman can avoid turnovers, I believe they have a very good chance in this game. But Catawba’s defense (6th in the nation in scoring) is legit, and one timely turnover could be the difference.

Catawba 30 Carson-Newman 24

UNC Pembroke at Newberry (2-2, 1-0) 4:00
Newberry had a tough start to the season, but they’ve won the last two games and the win over Carson-Newman could be one of those games that just lifts a team up and makes them feel like they can do anything. This matchup with UNCP is a winnable one and if they can get it, they will be well set for the run of six straight conference games to close out the second half of the season.

UNCP is a good program but this year’s team doesn’t seem to have quite as much explosiveness. Newberry is going to come in with a lot of enthusiasm after last week’s win and I can see that being a big factor in this game. The Wolves’s defense struggled a little bit early in the season but had a good outing against Carson-Newman, shutting out the Eagles in the second half. I think they are going to have a big day against a UNCP offense that is struggling. The Braves scored only 9 points against Catawba and 10 against Tusculum. Both games were at home.
I do think UNCP’s defense is better than the scores indicate, and Newberry’s offense is still not quite where it wants to be. Those factors should keep this game close, but I think Newberry pulls away with a few big plays in the second half.

Newberry 28 UNC Pembroke 17

Lenoir-Rhyne (1-3, 0-2) at Tusculum (2-2, 0-2) 6:00
Tusculum has been on the road for 3 of 4 games, while LR has left the confines of Moret Stadium only once in the first month. The Pioneers should be very excited to be back at home and will play in front of a “blackout” audience under the lights. Despite some disappointing results, both teams should come into this meeting with a lot of confidence. Tusculum’s offense is light years ahead of where it was this time last year, and Lenoir-Rhyne is making noticeable gains.

For Lenoir-Rhyne to win, they need to be able to establish the run. The passing game is still too inconsistent and still struggling to hit plays beyond the sticks. But if they pick up first downs on the ground with the rushing of Nelson Brown (91 yards per game) that makes things much easier on the passing game. The challenge is that Tusculum is very good at stopping the run, allowing just 119 yards per game. They are also very good at sacking quarterbacks (12) and taking the ball away.

LR’s defense was very courageous against a good Wingate team last week and it kept them in the game. If they can replicate that, they’ll be in the game for 60 minutes again. I like the strides that Lenoir-Rhyne has made in recent weeks, but Tusculum matches up well with them. As long as the Pioneer’s don’t have a flat day offensively (like they did at Limestone), I think they can get their third win.

Tusculum 24 Lenoir-Rhyne 21

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Updated 09-28-2017 at 05:39 PM by Chuck Bitner

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  1. mgcomedy's Avatar
    Always look forward to reading these blogs. Nice work Chuck!
  2. Chuck Bitner's Avatar
    I'm really glad you're enjoying it. I am having so much fun traveling around the Carolinas to see SAC footbal.