As the calendar turns to April with the promise of flowers blooming soon, plenty must first be settled on the football field as the contenders for the FCS playoffs begin to rise to the top.
The Ohio Valley Conference still has several teams in contention for postseason play. And depending on the outcome of Saturday’s games, some of those question marks could be settled by the time the sun sets that day.
Murray State (5-0 OVC/5-0 All) at Austin Peay (3-2 OVC/3-5 All)
TV: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: Froggy 103.7FM (Murray State), ESPN 104.1FM (Austin Peay)
Overview: The stakes could not be much higher on Saturday when Murray State and Austin Peay take to the field at Fortera Stadium.
Murray State, which currently sits atop the OVC standings, has a chance to secure at least a tie for the conference championship win with a win over the defending champion Govs. MSU would still have to defeat Jacksonville State in the regular season finale to gain the league’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs.
Austin Peay, meanwhile, is fresh off a win over Jacksonville State, has a chance to supplant the Racers atop the league standings with a win on Saturday and a win in the season finale next week against Eastern Illinois.
A pair of wins would improve APSU to 5-2 in the league and the Govs, by virtue of wins over JSU and MSU, would hold the tiebreaker if that scenario should arise.
This will be the 54th meeting between the Racers and Govs. MSU holds a 36-17 lead in the all-time series, but the Govs have won the last three contests, including a convincing 42-7 win during the 2019 season.
Murray State: The fact Murray State currently sits atop the league standings has caught many by surprise.
But when it comes to close games the safe money is on the Racers.
Murray State, which is averaging 30 points per game, has been masterful in close games. Three of the five conference wins this season have come by a combined 12 points.
Preston Rice (6-2, 227, RS, Jr., QB) continues to operate the Racer offense. He has completed 53 of 110 passes for 754 yards on the season and has thrown for six touchdowns.
Rice has done a masterful job of getting his receivers involved in a big way, in one way or another.
LaMartez Brooks (6-1, 192, RS, Jr., WR) has already caught 21 passes for 240 (11.4 ypc) this season and teammate Jacob Bell (6-3, 177, RS, So., WR) has 14 catches for 165 yards (11.8 ypc) to his credit.
DeQuan Dallas (5-10, 175, Sr., WR) may only have six catches on the year, but man have they have come in spectacular fashion. His receptions have covered 203 yards, a whopping 33.8 yard per catch average. Half of those six catches have resulted in touchdowns for the Racers.
Damonta Witherspoon (5-10, 206, FR., RB) leads MSU in rushing with 379 yards on 83 carries (4.6 ypc) this season. He has four touchdowns to his credit.
The Racers continue to be led on defense by Alec Long (5-11, 218, RS, So., LB) who has a team-high 48 (21 solo) tackles already on the year and ranks among the top defensive players in the Ohio Valley Conference. Eric Samuta (5-10, 215, RS., Jr.), another linebacker, has posted 36 (15 solo) stops, including three tackles for loss, for MSU.
Scotty Humpich (6-4, 252, Jr., LB) has recorded a team-best 4.5 TFLs as part of his 15 (7 solo) tackles for the Racers this spring.
Austin Peay: To the victors go the spoils.
So it is in the case of Austin Peay after its stunning upset of No. 7 Jacksonville State last weekend in Jacksonville that marked the first time the Govs had defeated the Gamecocks in Jacksonville since 1979.
Following his two-interception day against the vaunted Gamecocks, APSU’s Kam Ruffin was selected as the defensive player of the week in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Ruffin’s second interception, which came late in the fourth quarter, was returned 16 yards and a short time later the Govs were celebrating the upset.
The two picks by Ruffin were part of an afternoon that saw the Gamecocks turn the ball over six times.
Draylen Ellis (6-1, 178, Fr., QB) completed 28 of 53 passes for 211 yards in the upset of the Gamecocks. He now has 83 completions on 167 attempts this season for 1,043 yards.
C.J. Ellis (5-9, 177, RB), another true freshman, has 58 carries for 291 yards for the Govs this season.
Talented Deangelo Wilson (5-9, 173, Sr., WR), who caught 10 passes for 118 yards last week, now has 34 catches for 520 yards on the season for APSU.Terrell Vassel (6-0, 184, RS, Sr., S) had six (4 solo) tackles in the win over Jacksonville State. He now has 62 (34 solo) tackles on the year for the Govs.
Jacksonville State (4-1 OVC/7-2 All) at Eastern Illinois (1-4 OVC/1-4 All)
TV: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: WLJS 91.9FM (Jacksonville State), Hit-Mix 88.9FM (Eastern Illinois)
Overview: Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State, which joined the OVC in 2003, will be meeting for just the 18th time in the brief series between the two schools that both have a rich tradition on the football field. The two schools have combined to win 13 OVC championships. JSU had claimed five straight league titles (2014-18) before having that streak snapped in 2019 when SE Missouri and Austin Peay shared the crown.
The Gamecocks, winners of six straight over the Panthers, hold an 11-6 advantage in the series. EIU, which has five conference championship trophies, claimed back-to-back wins over JSU in 2001-13 and won the OVC crown each of those seasons.
Jacksonville State won the last meeting 28-20 during the 2019 season.
Jacksonville State: After marching down the field on the opening possession against Austin Peay and getting a quick stop on defense it appeared Jacksonville State was primed to show the country just why the Gamecocks were climbing in the national rankings.
Not much went right after that as the Govs took advantage of six JSU turnovers and countless false start penalties that thwarted any hopes of a JSU comeback on the way to defeating the Gamecocks last week.
Now it’s time for redemption on the part of Jacksonville State who are faced with a must-win situation if the Gamecocks are to reclaim the penthouse of the Ohio Valley Conference by winning the league championship for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
A return to that customary lofty position is still a distinct possibility with the presence of a number of talented players on both sides of the football.
Zion Webb (6-0, 200, RS, Jr., QB) has completed 77 of 135 passes for 1,036 yards this spring and has thrown for eight touchdowns. He has also tossed seven passes that have been picked off by the opposition.
The Gamecocks boast two of the most talented running backs in the league in the form of Josh Samuel (5-11, 215, RS, Jr.) and Uriah West (6-0, 225, JR.) who have combined for more than 1,000 yards out of the backfield this season. Samuel is the team’s top ground gainer after having rushed for 547 yards on 111 carries (4.9 ypc) and five touchdowns. West, meanwhile, has added 100 carries for 512 yards (5.1 ypc) and four scores of his own. He has also proven to be one of the most versatile backs in the conference by catching 15 passes for an additional 182 yards and one TD.
Dave Russell (6-0, 203, RS, So., WR) leads JSU in receiving with his 24 catches for 351 yards (14.6 ypc) and three touchdowns. Talented tight end Trae Berry (6-7, 245, Sr.) has 23 receptions for a team-best 359 yards on the year.
As talented as the Gamecocks are on offense, they appear to have just as many playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Nicario Harper (7-1, 205, RS, So., S) leads the team with 64 (28 solo) tackles and has a team-high three interceptions already this season. Three other players are not far behind.
Marshall Clark (6-0, 210, RS, So., LB) ranks second on the squad with 52 (15 solo) tackles, including six tackles for loss. Markail Benton (6-2, 235, RS, Jr., LB) and Jeremiah Harris (5-10, 180, RS, Jr., S) have added 43 and 41 total tackles, respectively, to help pace the Gamecocks on defense. Benton, who has two interceptions, has tallied 17 solo tackles, while Harris has recorded 23 solo stops of his own.
D.J. Coleman (6-6, 265, Jr., DE) has a staggering nine TFLs for the Gamecocks as part of his 38 (16 solo) tackles on the season.
Eastern Illinois: With thoughts of a playoff berth this spring long gone Eastern Illinois is best served by working to put the foundation in place to return to its long customary place among the elite of the Ohio Valley Conference.
A return to those days don’t appear to be far off as the Panthers are enjoying what they are seeing out of three of the top young players in the conference.
Jordan Smith (5-9, 180, Fr., RB) and Otto Kuhns (6-3, 205, Fr., QB) are both emerging as two of the top newcomers in the Ohio Valley Conference this season.
Smith rushed for 142 yards on 13 carries last week in the loss to Murray State. It was the second time this season a Panther runner has surpassed the 100-yard rushing plateau in a game. Jaelin Benefield (5-10, 160, So. RB) rushed for 120 yards at Tennessee State earlier this season.
Included in Smith’s performance against the Racers was an 80-yard scamper early in the third quarter. It as the third longest rushing touchdown this season in the FCS and helped Smith earn the newcomer of the week honor in the OVC.
It also helped Smith surpass Benefield as the Panthers’ leading rusher this season. He now has 227 yards on 41 carries (5.5 ypc) this season while Benefield is right behind with 216 yards on his 46 carries (4.7 ypc) providing the Panthers with a pair of talented players out of the backfield.
Kuhns, meanwhile, started his third straight game for the Panthers last week and finished the game with more than 200 yards of offense. He completed 10 of 26 passes for 141 and added a 64-yard scramble to push him over the 200-yard plateau.
He improved the numbers in his freshman season to 44 completions, 87 pass attempts and has totaled 509 yards through the air this season. He had a career-high 153 passing yards earlier this season in a game against Tennessee Tech.
Jay Vallie (6-3, 245, Grad., SB), who transferred to EIU this season after playing at Dayton, leads the Panthers with 14 receptions for 160 yards this season. He has scored two touchdowns. Tyler Hamilton (5-9, 175, RS, Jr., WR) and DeWayne Cooks (6-2, 155, RS, So., WR), a pair of speedsters on the outside for the Panthers, have also reached double digits in receptions this season. Hamilton has caught 13 passes for 80 yards and Cooks has chipped in with 11 catches for 138 yards.
Mark Williams (6-0, 200, So., LB) intercepted a pass on the opening play of the second half in the game against the Racers and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. It was the second straight game in which Williams had picked off a pass. He now has nine interceptions in his career.
Jason Johnson (6-2, 200, So., LB) turned in another big day on defense for the Panthers by recording 11 (5 solo) tackles against the Racers. It was the second straight week in which he reached double-figure tackles for the second straight week after a 15-tackle performance against Tennessee Tech on March 21. He shares the team lead in TFLs with Jordan Miles (6-2, 215, Fr., DE) who has a total of 17 (9 solo) tackles to his credit on the year.
Johnson leads the OVC with 55 (30 solo) tackles, including being tied for the team lead with six tackles for loss.
Colin Bohanek (6-0, 210, Fr., LB) leads all OVC freshmen in tackles this season. He has 31 (16 solo) tackles in his initial collegiate season and has one interception to his credit.
Southeast Missouri State (2-3/2-4 All) at UT Martin (2-3 OVC/2-3 All)
TV: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: Real Rock 99.3FM (SE Missouri), WCMT 1410AM/100.5FM (UT Martin)
Overview: The Redhawks and Skyhawks will be meeting for the 36th time in the series that dates back to the first time the two schools met in 1966.
UT Martin holds a slim 18-17 lead in the series, which SEMO once led 13-7. The Skyhawks, though, have won 11 of the last 15 meeting to take control in the meetings between the two schools.
SEMO won the last meeting between the two schools with a 17-10 win over the Skyhawks on Oct. 26, 2019 in Cape Girardeau on the way to winning a share of the Ohio Valley Conference championship and advancing to the FCS playoffs.
This weekend’s game features a matchup of two of the OVC’s top signal callers. UT Martin’s John Bachus leads the league in total offense with 227.2 yards per game while SEMO’s Andrew Bunch ranks second with 190.2 yards per contest.
The Redhawks rank second as a team in scoring with 25.7 points per game this season and have scored at least 40 points on two occasions this spring.
SE Missouri: Dramatics was the operative word of the day on March 28 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Southeast Missouri was celebrating at the end of the day after the Redhawks managed to hold off a late rally to defeat Tennessee Tech 24-21. SEMO had just to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter to take the early command over the Golden Eagles. The win snapped a three-game losing streak by SEMO.
This will be the first of two straight road games for the Redhawks to close the spring season. After meeting UT Martin on Saturday, they will travel to Tennessee State to close the season.
Zack Smith (5-9, 200, RS, Sr., WR) had the best day of his collegiate career in the win over the Tigers. He caught 10 passes for 173 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns in the game. He scored on catches of eight and 61 yards, both as part of the 21-point scoring barrage in the first period that gave the Redhawks the early command.
Smith earned OVC offensive player of the week honors for his efforts. The award was the first of Smith’s career.
For the season the talented Smith has caught 34 passes for 369 yards (17.3 ypc) and the two TDs were the first of the season for Smith.
Johnny King (6-4, 180, JR., WR) has also had a solid season for the Redhawks in catching the football. He has 22 receptions for 275 yards (12.5 ypc) and has caught two TD passes.
QB Andrew Bunch (6-1, 215, RS, Sr.), a transfer from Nebraska, had arguably the best day of his short career at SEMO last weekend when he completed 18 of 24 passes for 259 yards and the two scoring throws to Smith.
That helped Bunch improve his season out to 100 completions, 177 attempts and 1,037 yards this season. He has now thrown for five touchdowns but has been picked off eight times on the season.
The running attack, despite some not-so-spectacular numbers on the part of the Redhawks as a team, certainly is in capable hands in the form of Geno Hess (5-8, 209, RS, So. RB). Hess has rushed 108 times for 490 yards (4.5 ypc) and has scored eight touchdowns.
Hess’ eight rushing TDs leads all FCS rushers this season and his 490 yards ranks him 13th in the nation this spring.
Lawrence Johnson (6-0, 194, JR., DB) and Brandon Mincey (6-0, 242, Jr., LB) are the leaders on defense for the Redhawks.
Johnson is coming off his second double-digit tackle game in the last three outings after recording a career-high 12 tackles in the win over the Tennessee Tech. He had nine solo tackles in the game while being in on three other stops. He also forced a fumble in the game. That play led to a 23-yard field goal that proved to be the decisive score.
Johnson has 39 tackles (26 solo) tackles this season and has intercepted one pass and deflected four others for the Redhawks. Mincey, meanwhile, has 38 (18 solo) tackles so far this season, including four TFLs.
UT Martin: A spirited comeback attempt came up short for UT Martin in its game against Tennessee State last weekend. And with it so went whatever chances the Skyhawks had at advancing to the FCS playoffs.
The Tigers turned away a two-point conversion attempt with less than two minutes left in the game to turn away UT Martin 26-24 last weekend in Nashville. The Skyhawks had rallied to score 17 points in the final quarter to make things interesting.
As the 2021 spring season enters the final two weeks of the “regular” season, the Skyhawks can only look to play for pride and set the tone for an improved fall season.
John Bachus (6-2, 215, RS, So., QB) leads the UT Martin offense. And he has established himself as one of the best in the OVC at his position.
He has completed 107 of 188 passes for 1,157 yards this season. His nine passing touchdowns ranks him seventh in program history.
Behind Bachus’ efforts the Skyhawks rank first in the league in passing yards per game (242.4) this season and his nine touchdown passes are the second-most in the OVC.
Bachus has a trio of top-notch pass catchers that does more than enough keep opposing defenses on their toes this spring. Colton Dowell (6-3, 215, RS, Jr., WR) and Rodney Williams (6-4, 235, RS, Sr., WR/TE) both rank among the best in the OVC by averaging more than four receptions per game. Dowell has caught a team-best 27 passes for 295 yards (10.9 ypc) and has scored one touchdown. He is averaging 5.4 catches per game this spring. Williams, meanwhile, is averaging 4.4 catches per game. He has hauled in 22 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns.
And if the presence of Dowell and Williams is not enough to cause fits for the opposition throw talented Donnell Williams (6-3, 205, RS, Sr., WR) into the mix and it’s clear the Redhawks will have their hands full trying to contain the trio. The talented receiving trio all rank in the top five in the OVC in receptions per game.
Defensively the Skyhawks also are well represented by some of the best in the OVC.
Deven Sims (6-2, 200, RS, Jr. S) ranks third in the league in total tackles with 46 (23 solo) tackles. He has averaged just over nine tackles per game and has 4.5 tackles for loss to his credit. His teammate in the secondary, Jay Woods (5-9, 185, Gr. DB) leads the OVC with seven pass breakups.
It is seldom a good thing though when defensive backs are among your leading tacklers. That’s where John Ford (6-3, 230, RS, Jr., LB) and Korbin Harmon (6-5, 275, RS, Sr., DE) have come in handy to help ease some of the pressure on the UTM secondary.Ford ranks 11th in the league with 32 (17 solo) tackles on the year and Harmon has chipped in with 17 (6 solo) stops of his own. Harmon also has five tackles for loss, half of which came in the loss last week at Tennessee State.
Tennessee State (2-3 OVC/2-3 All) at Tennessee Tech (2-3 OVC/2-3 All)
TV: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: KISS 98.5FM (Tennessee Tech)
Overview: Nashville, Tenn. and Cookeville, Tenn. are separated on the map by just some 80 miles. Despite the close proximity between the two communities, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech will be meeting for just the 14th time when the two schools take to the field on Saturday in Cookeville.
TSU, which has claimed victory in each of the last two encounters, holds an 8-5 over the Golden Eagles in the short rivalry.
It will also be the second straight meeting between the two schools in Cookeville, The Tigers defeated Tech 37-27 in Cookeville during the 2019 season.
Tennessee State: This season has been nothing but a season of surprises up and down the FCS landscape as words like opt-out and protocols have found new meanings and a prominent place in the language of football fans all across the country.
Closer to home Tennessee State finds itself in the midst of surprises of its own in Music City. The Tigers, who upset UT Martin 26-24 last week, have now won two games this season and have a chance to make it three if they win on Saturday at Tennessee Tech.
Devon Starling (6-0, 190, RS, Fr., RB) is leading the Tigers on offense this season. He has rushed for 514 yards on 94 carries (5.5 ypc) and has scored two touchdowns.
He is not alone as a part of a talented offense which is being operated by QB Isaiah Green (6-2, 207, RS, Jr.). He has completed 68 of his 122 pass attempts for 868 yards and two touchdowns.
Nearly half of Green’s completions have settled into the hands of either Cam Wyche (6-0, 190, RS, Jr., WR) or Dayron Johnson (5-9, 180, So., WR), Wyche has 18 catches for 365 yards (20.3 ypc) and two touchdowns while Johnson’s 14 catches have gone for 212 (15.1 ypc) this season.
The TSU defense is being paced by a quartet of steady performers this season.
Davaon Hawkins (6-3, 286, RS, Jr., DL) is the leading tackler on the team this spring. He has 27 (14 solo) tackles, including eight tackles for loss. Teammates James Green (6-1, 220, RS, Jr., LB) and Nyle Love (6-1, 230, RS, So., LB) both have recorded 26 total tackles for TSU and both have 15 solo stops to their credit. Green has also been credited with 4.5 TFLs for the Tigers as part of his production.
Josh Green (6-0, 180, RS, So., DB) leads the Tigers with three interceptions this season. He enters Saturday’s game against the Golden Eagles with 21 (14 solo) tackles on the year.
Tennessee Tech: A season that began with plenty of optimism has not turned out the way Tennessee Tech envisioned.
After opening the season with an impressive win the Golden Eagles have lost their starting quarterback to injury and have lost each of their last four games. The last three setbacks have each been by eight of fewer points, proving TTU has the talent, if not the fortune, to be competitive in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Willie Miller (6-0, 178, So.) has stepped in at quarterback for injured Bailey Fisher. Miller has responded by completing 45 of 82 passes for 500 yards and three touchdowns in Fisher’s absence. He has also rushed 39 times for 187 yards (4.8 ypc) and four touchdowns. Miller’s 187 rushing yards ranks him first on the team charts in that department.
Kurt Taylor (5-10, 205, Jr., RB) is just off the rushing pace being set by Miller. Taylor has 182 yards on 53 carries (3.4 ypc) and has scored four times on the ground. He has also added 19 receptions for 92 additional yards and one TD on the season.
Metrius Fleming (6-0, 178, So., WR) and Justin Oden (6-3, 175, S., WR) are pacing the Golden Eagles in receiving this season. Fleming has caught 12 passes for 187 yards (15.6 ypc) and has scored one touchdown, while Oden, who has yet to find the end zone, has 11 catches for 175 yards (15.9 ypc).
The Golden Eagles have four players leading the way on defense this season.
Linebackers Seth Carlisle (6-0, 225, Jr.,) and Jack Warwick (6-0, 224, RS, So.) have recorded 37 and 32 total tackles, respectively, for TTU. Carlisle has been credited with 17 solo tackles and Warwick has 11 solo stops to his credit.
Teammates Marcus McMeans (5-11, 186, SR.) and Josh Reliford (5-10, 210, RS, Jr.), both defensive backs, both have 28 total tackles on the year. McMeans, who has 3.5 tackles for loss, has tallied 15 solo tackles while Reliford has 14 solo tackles on the year.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.