2021 Division I FCS Playoff First Round Preview: Tennessee-Martin at Missouri State

FCS FIRST ROUND PLAYOFF MATCHUP: TENNESSEE-MARTIN AT MISSOURI STATE
WHERE: ROBERT W. PLASTER STADIUM, SPRINGFIELD, MO.
WHEN: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27TH, 3:00PM CST
TV/STREAMING: ESPN+

Missouri State is back in the playoffs for the second season in a row and fourth season overall. The Bears were co-champions of the MVFC last spring to get their first bid to the postseason since 1990. This season, Missouri State finished in second place in the MVFC standings by themselves.

The Bears knocked off three ranked opponents this season while featuring a potent scoring offense which averages 34.5 points per game (15th in NCAA) and an opportunistic defense which has forced 24 turnovers on the season (sixth in NCAA). The team’s one Achilles’ heel has been its pass protection which has allowed 44 sacks – ranking 119th out of 123 teams nationally.

This past spring, MSU lost in the playoffs at MVFC rival North Dakota and will look for their first playoff win since the 1989 season (win over Maine). That win actually is the only win in Bears FCS playoff history.

The Bears will play the Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee-Martin. The Skyhawks won their second ever OVC title (first in 2006). UTM won nine straight games after losing its season opener at FBS Western Kentucky but did lose its last regular season game last week at Southeast Missouri State.

The Skyhawks picked up four non-conference victories and enter the playoffs statistically ranked in the top25 nationally in 10 team categories and eight individual categories – including sacks allowed (0.91, sixth), rushing
offense (231.3, eighth), winning percentage (81.8, ninth) and interceptions (14, 11th).

UTM is making its second ever FCS playoff appearance. The lone other appearance was in 2006 that was an opening round loss at another MVFC squad in Southern Illinois.

These two schools have played six times previously. The Bears have won all six games including four prior meetings in Springfield. The most recent meeting though was in the 2009 season.

Here is a look at some key stats for this season and how these two teams compare:

TENNESSEE-MARTIN SKYHAWKS (9-2, 5-1 OVC)

Coach: Jason Simpson – 16th Year at UTM – 16 Years Total as a Head Coach
Record at Tennessee-Martin: 99-79
Overall Record: 99-79
OVC Championships: 2

The UT Martin offense has produced a strong ground attack this season, eclipsing 200 rushing yards eight times. The Skyhawks lead the OVC and rank eighth nationally with 231.3 rushing yards per game while boasting two of the top seven rushers in the league in Peyton Logan (89.3/gm,2nd) and Zak Wallace (67.7/gm, 7th).

The passing attack is headed by QB Keon Howard, who was named OVC Offensive Player of the Year following a record-setting setting regular season. In his first year after transferring from FBS Tulane, Howard accounted for 2,285 yards of total offense and 25 touchdowns.

Howard’s top receiving threats are also All-OVC performers in WR Colton Dowell and TE Rodney Williams II. Dowell has 22 catches for 398 yards and two touchdowns, while Williams has 21 catches for 333 yards and three scores.

The Skyhawk defense is headed by LB Eyabi Anoma and S Deven Sims.

Anoma is a former five star recruit that came to Martin after stints at FBS Alabama and Houston. He was named to the All-SEC Freshman team in 2018 but was dismissed from the team due to academic issues. This season, Anoma tallied 30 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and 6.0 sacks in being named to the All-OVC Newcomer team.

Sims led the team with 80 tackles and added 5.5 TFL with an internception. He was named to the All-OVC First Team.

Key Players: RBs Peyton Logan & Zak Wallace

RBs Peyton Logan (right) & Zak Wallace (left)

The Skyhawks may not know what it has with QB Keon Howard, who missed last week’s game at Southeast Missouri State but is listed as the starter on the UTM game notes. The duo will need to help control the clock as I believe time of possession will be a key to a victory for this game’s winner especially if Howard can not go or go as he has most of this season.

Logan is just 18 yards from the 1,000 yard mark, while Wallace leads the team with 14 rushing scores.

MISSOURI STATE BEARS (8-3, 6-2 MVFC)

Coach: Bobby Petrino – 2nd Year at MSU – 16 Years Total as a Head Coach
Record at Missouri State: 13-8
Overall Record: 132-64
MVFC Championships: 1

The Bears are 3-1 against the 2021 FCS Playoff field with wins over Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa and South Dakota. The team also lost a 27-20 decision at NDSU, a game the Bears led or were tied for more than 55 minutes.

The Bears offense is headed by QB Jason Shelley who has passed for 3,068 yards. He ranks 8th in the nation in yards per completion (14.4), 8th in yards per attempt (8.57), 10th in total offense (310.3), 11th in passing yards (3,068), 13th in points responsible for (176), 14th in passing yards per game (278.9) and 23rd in rushing TD’s (10). He has already shattered MSU’s single-season passing yards (3,068) and total offense (3,417) season records.  

WR Tyrone Scott is one of the top playmakers nationally, tallying 60 receptions for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns. He is shattering the program’s single-season receiving yardage record (1,039) — which ranks 6th nationally, while also breaking the program’s record for 100-yard receiving games in a season (6) and tying the MSU receiving TDs mark (8). He enters Saturday’s game 2 receptions away from tying the school single-season receptions mark (62) and ranks 9th nationally in receiving yards per game (94.5) 23rd in receiving TDs (8), 32nd in receptions per game (5.5) and 38th in yards per catch (17.3).

Defensively, Tyla Wiltz has a team-high 90 tackles on the season, including 12.5 tackles for loss on the season along with three forced fumbles. DE Kevin Ellis paces the team with 8.0 sacks while Montrae Braswell solidifies the secondary with 11 pass breakups and four interceptions.

MSU’s defense ranks 6th nationally in takeaways (24), 9th in defensive touchdowns (3), 11th in interceptions (14), 11th in turnover margin (+0.73) and 30th in sacks (2.55).

Key Player: QB Jason Shelley

As mentioned earlier, Shelley is one of the most dynamic signal callers in all of the FCS. He will need to use both his arm and legs to win this game in what I believe will be a higher scoring game. He will also need to spread the ball around and also use the running backs behind him to keep the UTM defense honest.

Fearless Prediction:

These two teams statistically are very similar. Both score over 30 points and give up around 25 points defensively. This might make for somewhat of a shootout type of game. The big question though is if the Skyhawks QB Howard will play or at least play to his normal abilities. If he can’t go or is a shell of his normal self, this game will be an easy win for the Bears. If he was just rested knowing UTM was already in the postseason as the OVC champion, this game will go down to the wire.

I still like the Bears at home and I am assuming Howard will go for the Skyhawks. This means a tight game but Missouri State picks up their first playoff win in over two decades. Missouri State 34 Tennessee-Martin 30

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