Crazy Season Continues to Unfold in OVC
Polls and rankings make for good fodder at the water cooler and between rival fan bases, but the fact remains trying to rank teams still remains nothing but a guess.
Proof of that be seen by simply taking a look at the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll and comparing it against where those same teams sit in the league standings as the regular season heads into the final three weeks of play.
Murray State, which grabbed half of the votes during the preseason to win the conference championship, are still looking to taste victory for the first time in league play this season.
Tennessee State, with a new coach taking the reigns in Music City when the season began, was tabbed to place fifth and enters a key game this week with a chance to ascend to the top spot in the league standings.
Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri State shared the second spot in the poll when it was announced just prior to the dog days of August and the start of fall camp. Those two teams are not out of the hunt, but currently finds themselves in the middle of the pack and must get plenty of help from other teams if they are to reach the FCS Playoffs this season.
But, hey, it’s all still anybody’s guess.
Tennessee Tech (1-2 OVC/3-5 Overall) at Murray State (0-3 OVC/3-5 Overall)
When: Sat., Nov. 6 (1:00 pm CT)
Where: Roy Stewart Stadium (16,800), Murray, Kent.
TV/Streaming: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: KISS 98.5 FM (Cookeville), Froggy 103.7 FM (Murray)
All-Time Series: TTU leads 46-39-1
First Meeting: 1930 (TTU 26, MSU 6)
Last Meeting: MSU 36, TTU 31 (spring 2021)
Last Week: Tennessee Tech – idle, Murray State lost to Tennessee State 27-21
The Golden Eagles
Tennessee Tech’s hopes of an Ohio Valley Conference championship is teetering precariously as the season heads into the final three weeks. And the Golden Eagles cannot afford another loss. They also need plenty of help along the way if they are to finish atop the league standings.
Tech, which was idle last weekend, enters Saturday’s game winners of three of its last four games, would move to 2-2 in conference play with a win Saturday against league cellar dweller Murray State. The Golden Eagles will close out the regular season with games against league frontrunner UTM (Nov. 13) and Austin Peay (Nov. 20).
Getting to the top won’t be easy. Tech is averaging just 19 points per game this season and its defense is allowing 28.5 points per contest.
Quarterback Willie Miller (6-0, 178, So.) appears to have settled into the starting role after sharing time with two other signal callers earlier this season. The Golden Eagles have averaged 31.0 points per game over the last four games with Miller playing a larger role in the offense.
He has completed 40 of 89 passes on the season for 494 yards and five touchdowns (4 interceptions) and has added 225 yards rushing on 58 carries (3.9 ypc) and a pair of additional scores. He ranks second on the team in rushing heading into Saturday’s contest.
David Gist (5-11, 190, Jr., RB) is the team’s leading rusher. He rushed for 127 yards on 13 carries in the win over Virginia-Lynchburg two weeks ago and scored a pair of touchdowns in the game. It was the fourth straight game he has rushed for at least 100 yards and the first Tech player to achieve that mark since Derek White in 2007.
He has gained 697 yards on 129 carries (5.4 ypc) and six touchdowns for the Golden Eagles. He is averaging 87.1 yards per game (27th nationally) and has a chance to reach 1,000 yards by the end of season. The versatile homegrown Gist has caught 23 passes out of the backfield for 159 yards and another touchdown.
Quinton Cross (5-11, 175, RS-So., WR) leads the team in receiving. He has 31 receptions for 399 yards and two touchdowns for Tech this season.
The Golden Eagles have also been playing better on defense over the course of the last four games. That unit is allowing just 16.5 points per game during that span. Tech is leading the OVC in rushing defense (115.2 ypg) and ranks 25th nationally in that department.
Josh Reliford (5-10, 200, RS-Jr., DB) continues to pace the defense this season. He has tallied 55 (29 solo) tackles, including four tackles for loss, while talented linebackers Seth Carlisle (6-0, 225, Jr.) and Jack Warwick (6-0, 224, RS-So.) have chipped in with 48 (21 solo) and 39 (20 solo) stops, respectively, this season.
Devin Squires (6-0, 240, Fr., DL) ranks seventh on the team with 27 (9 solo) tackles, including a staggering 8.5 tackles for loss already this season.
A season that began with plenty of optimism has not panned out the way Murray State had envisioned when the 2021 season prepared to get underway.
The Racers are still in search of their first conference victory of the season. And Saturday’s game at home against Tennessee Tech might be the last best chance for MSU to break into the positive side of the conference ledger. Murray State is scheduled to close the season with games against Southeast Missouri and Eastern Illinois over the final two weeks of the season.
DJ Williams (6-2, 202, RS-Fr., QB) has played well as the leader of the MSU offense after replacing former starter Preston Rice (6-2, 227, RS-Jr., QB). Williams has responded by completing 54 of 101 passes for 649 yards and three touchdowns (2 interceptions). He also has moved into second place on the team’s rushing chart this season with 245 yards on 49 carries (5.2 ypc) and three scores.
Rice, meanwhile, made his return from injury and finished with 135 yards of total offense in the loss to Tennessee State last week as Murray State was unable to complete the comeback from a 21-0 deficit midway through the third quarter. He threw for one touchdown in the game and ran for another which gives him 15 for his career.
Rice now has 64 completions on the season on 124 passing attempts for 736 yards and one touchdown (10 interceptions). He has also rushed 38 times for 113 yards (3.0 ypc) and six touchdowns. With two more rushing touchdowns he will become the first MSU quarterback among the top 10 players in school history in rushing touchdowns.
Damonta Witherspoon (5-10, 205, RS-Fr., RB) leads the way on the ground for the Racers. He has rushed 151 times for 577 yards (3.8 ypc) and five touchdowns so far this season. He has also caught 16 passes for 170 more yards and another score.
LaMartez Brooks (6-1, 192, RS-Jr., WR), who caught the scoring toss from Rice last weekend, now has 26 catches for 322 yards and one touchdown. Teammate Malik Honeycutt (5-10, 177, RS-Sr., WR) has chipped in with 16 catches for 289 yards on the season.
Murray State has several players on the defensive side of the ball who have posted solid numbers so far this season.
Eric Samuta (5-10, 215, RS-Jr., LB) is leading the way on defense with 54 (23 solo) tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss. Teammates Lawaun Powell (6-0, 227, RS-Fr., LB) has added 35 (21 solo) tackles to rank second on the team.
Cortez Roberts (5-11, 198, RS-Jr., S) and Marcis Floyd (6-0, 188, RS-So., CB) have both tallied 29 total tackles, while Levi Metheny (6-0, 233, RS-Sr., LB) and Jamari Dailey (5-11, 175, FR-Fr., S) are not far behind with 28 total tackles each.
Tennessee State (3-1 OVC/5-3 Overall) at UT Martin (3-0 OVC/7-1 Overall)
When: Sat., Nov. 6 (2:00 pm CT)
Where: Hardy M. Graham Stadium (7,500), Martin, Tenn.
Radio: WQZQ 102.1 FM (Nashville), WCMT 1410 AM/100.5 FM (Cookeville)
All-Time Series: TSU leads 18-12
First Meeting: UTM 17, TSU 14 (Oct. 8, 1966)
Last Meeting: TSU 26, UTM 24 (spring 2021)
Last Week: TSU defeated Murray State 27-21, UTM defeated Austin Peay 17-16
Back in July, during the OVC Media Day, Eddie George laid out the plan to build his team from the inside out when he prepared to open his first season as a collegiate coach.
It seems to be working nicely for the new Tennessee State mentor.
His team has won each of the last four games to improve to 5-3 on the season heading into this week’s game against league-leading UT Martin. A win over the Skyhawks would propel the Tigers atop the OVC standings.
While the winning streak is impressive enough, the way TSU has been winning might be even more impressive – and useful – down the road. Tennessee State closed league play next week at home against Austin Peay and then closes out the regular season the following week at Mississippi State.
The Tigers have outscored their opponents 99-56 over the last four games, including a 28-0 shutout of Eastern Illinois. The other three victories have come by a combined 15 points.
The nail-biters may prove important over the next two games as the Tigers look to sew up the OVC title and a berth in the FCS Playoffs.
Geremy Hickbottom (6-4, 210, Sr., QB) has been impressive all season in leading the Tennessee State offense. He accounted for 246 yards of total offense in last week’s win over Murray State. He passed for one touchdown and ran for three more in the contest to become the first TSU quarterback with three rushing TDs in a game since Antonio Heffner in 2006 and was voted the league’s offensive player of the week for his efforts against the Racers.
Hickbottom has thrown for 1,626 yards after completing 119 of his 204 pass attempts this season and has tossed 11 scoring strikes against just three interceptions. He has also added 251 yards on 58 carries (4.3 ypc) and seven touchdowns.
Devon Starling (6-1, 200, So., RB) leads the Tigers in rushing with 683 yards on 149 carries (4.6 ypc) and two TDs while tight end Rodell Rahmaan (6-4, 230, Sr. TE) leads the receivers with 22 catches for 447 yards and six touchdowns. He is averaging in impressive 20.3 yards per catch this season for the Tigers.
A trio of standouts are leading the way on the defensive side of the ball for TSU, which leads the league in scoring defense (20.5 ppg). The Tigers are also leading the OVC by allowing just 325.8 yards per game to their opponents.
James Green (6-1, 220, RS-Jr., LB) is the leading tackler with 51 (24 solo), including 4.5 tackles for loss, while Jahsun Bryant (6-2, 225, Sr., LB) and Josh Green (5-11, 184, So., S) are not far behind. Bryant has 50 (25 solo) tackles and Green has 47 (31 solo) stops, including 5.5 TFLs to his credit.
It’s been a season for the ages for UT Martin as the Skyhawks, without much fanfare, has been yeoman-like in going about business week in and week out to climb to the top of the Ohio Valley Conference standings.
That approach has brought the Skyhawks to a collision course with Tennessee State in a game that features the top two teams in the league. A win by UTM would put them in the driver’s seat with games remaining against Tennessee Tech and Southeast Missouri.
Tulane transfer Keon Howard (6-1, 215, Grad., QB) has been lighting things up all season for the Skyhawks. He has completed 129 of 216 passes for 1,546 yards and 12 touchdowns this season (7 interceptions) and has added 83 carries for 370 yards (4.5 ypc) and eight TDs on the ground.
He spearheaded the game-winning drive that allowed UTM to score late to slip past Austin Peay last week and virtually ending APSU’s thoughts of a league title. The Skyhawks scored 10 points in the final quarter to win 17-16 when an Austin Peay field goal attempt in the closing second was blocked to preserve the win.
Peyton Logan (5-8, 190, Sr., RB), one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the OVC, lead the Skyhawks with 744 yards on 100 carries (7.4 ypc) and has scored two times on the ground. He has also caught 19 passes out of the backfield for 199 yards and three more TDs for the league’s front-runner.
Zak Wallace (6-0, 220, RS-Fr., RB) has been one of the top freshmen in the league this season. He has already rushed for 420 yards on 49 carries (4.2 ypc) and nine touchdowns.
Howard’s top two targets all season have been Colton Dowell (6-3, 215, RS-Jr., WR) and tight end Rodney Williams (6-4, 235, Grad.). Dowell has caught a team-high 22 passes for 398 yards and two touchdowns while Williams has also found the end zone twice after catching 15 passes for 258 yards.
Deven Sims (6-2, 200, RS-Jr., S) is leading the Skyhawks in tackles with 61 (28 solo) stops on the season including 3.5 tackles for loss. D’Carrious Stephens (6-0, 225, Grad., LB), meanwhile, ranks second on the team with 43 (18 solo) stops and 4.0 TFLs.
John Ford (6-3, 230, Grad., LB), one of the top players in the league at his position, has 43 (22 solo) tackles and a team-high two interceptions. Eyabi Anoma (6-6, 270, RS-So., LB), a transfer from Alabama, blocked the late field goal attempt by the Govs. He finished the game with eight tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss. He now has 23 (10 solo) tackles on the year and a team-high 8.5 TFLs.
He was voted the national defensive player of the week honors for his efforts against the Govs. As a unit, UTM held APSU to just 199 yards of total offense and did not allow an offensive touchdown in the game.
Eastern Illinois (1-3 OVC/1-8 Overall) at Austin Peay (1-2 OVC/3-5 Overall)
When: Sat., Nov. 6 (2:00 pm CT)
Where: Fortera Stadium (8,000), Clarksville, Tenn.
TV/Streaming: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: HIT-Mix 88.9 FM (Charleston), ESPN 540 AM/104.1 FM (Clarksville
All-Time Series: EIU leads 15-5
First Meeting: APSU 21, Eastern Illinois 6 (1958 in Clarksville)
Last Meeting: ASPU 35, EIU 7 (Nov. 23, 2019)
Last Week: EIU lost to SEMO 38-15, APSU lost to UT Martin 17-16
At one time this season it looked like Eastern Illinois would return to its once-familiar place among the best teams in the Ohio Valley Conference. Four straight losses have made this season just like several others in recent memory as the Panthers attempt to emerge from the cellar of the league standings at season’s end.
Eastern Illinois is idle next week and will close the regular season Nov. 20 at home against Murray State.
Otto Kuhns (6-3, 205, Fr. QB) has played in all eight games this season and has completed 91 of 193 passes for 1,127 yards and six touchdowns for the Panthers. He has managed just 64 yards rushing on 54 carries (1.2 ypc) and two additional scores.
Aaron Foulkes (5-8, 165, Fr., WR) and Isaiah Hill (5-11, 190, RS-Jr., WR) are the top two pass catchers for Eastern Illinois. Foulkes has caught a team-best 21 passes for 268 yards, which also leads the team, and one touchdown while Hill has hauled in 16 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown of his own while playing in just three games after being injured through the first five contests.
D’Arrious Smith (5-11, 175, Fr., WR) tops the receivers with three touchdowns after hauling in a total of 13 passes for 193 yards this season and teammate Robbie Lofton (6-3, 185, RS-Sr., WR) has added 15 catches for 128 yards and has scored twice for the Panthers.
That quartet has combined for all seven receiving touchdowns by the Panthers this season.
The EIU defense is currently leading the OVC and is ranked No. 7 in the nation in pass defense (163.2 ypg).
That active unit has continued to be paced by Jason Johnson (6-2, 200, So., LB), who had 14 tackles to lead the Panthers last weekend, to improve his total to 94 (50 solo) tackles on the season. He leads the OVC with 10.2 tackles per game and that mark puts him at 14th in the FCS heading into Saturday’s game against the Governors.
Colin Bohanek (6-0, 210, Fr., LB) has also been playing brilliantly this season for the Panthers. He ranks second on the team with 71 (33 solo) tackles, which includes eight tackles for loss. Jordan Vincent (5-10, 185, Fr., S) has tallied 56 (43 solo), including five TFLs.
Tim Varga (6-3, 240, So., DL) and Jordan Miles (6-2, 215, Fr., DE) and have contributed with 39 and 38 total tackles, respectively, so far this season. Varga has 26 solo tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss while Miles, who has recorded 11 TFLS, has 19 solo stops to his credit.
The door to the playoffs has not slammed shut on Austin Peay, but there is no doubt the Govs can ill afford another loss beginning this week against Eastern Illinois. APSU will have two games remaining on the schedule and will play at Tennessee State (Nov. 13) and against Tennessee Tech at home on Nov. 20.
Sheldon Layman (6-1, 192, Jr. QB) completed 11 of 18 passes for 104 yards last week for the Govs in their loss to UTM in a game that saw APSU fail to get any points from its offense. Layman has now completed 17 of 27 passes for 168 yards on the season after replacing injured standout Draylen Ellis (6-1, 175, So., QB).
Ahmaad Tanner (6-0, 205, Grad., RB) was held in check and held to just 38 yards by the Skyhawks last week. He still leads the team with 588 yards on 120 carries this season (4.9 ypc) and nine touchdowns. Teammate Brian Snead (6-1, 212, RS-Jr., RB). He carried 21 times for 62 yards in the game and now has 299 yards on 47 carries (4.7 ypc) and three touchdowns on the season for the Govs.
Baniko Harley (6-0, 227, Grad., WR) continues to lead his team with 39 receptions for 622 yards and six touchdowns so far in the final season of his brilliant collegiate career in Clarksville. Drae McCray (5-8, 176, Fr., WR) continues to have an outstanding season of his own. He ranks second on the team with 415 receiving yards on 34 catches and has scored twice. His 34 catches rank third on the team. DJ Render (5-11, 181, Grad., WR) is right behind McCray with 311 yards on 36 catches.
Austin Peay’s scoring production against the Skyhawks came largely from the defense which returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in the game.
Koby Perry (6-0, 174, Grad., DB) scored the first points of the game for APSU when he picked off a pass and returned it 75 yards for a score to put the Govs in front. Teammate Isaiah Norman (6-1, 210, Grad., DB) also returned an interception eight yards for a score late in the first half that gave the Govs a 16-0 lead at the time.
It marked the first time ASPU had a pair of pick-six interceptions in a game since 2019 when Kordell Jackson returned two interceptions of his own in a game against Mercer.
The Govs lead the OVC with 17 turnovers this season and ranks 11th nationally in that department.
Perry finished with a career-high 16 tackles (tied for the most by an OVC player this season) and was selected the defensive player of the week in the conference for his performance last week. He ranks second on the team with 45 (29 solo) tackles this season.
Jack McDonald (6-0, 210, Grad., LB) leads the Govs with 48 (18 solo) tackles. Included in that tally are 3.5 tackles for loss. He has also intercepted one pass on the year. Troy Henderson (5-11, 222, Grad.), another linebacker, ranks third with 43 (20 solo) tackles to his credit.
Jackson (5-10, 165, Grad., DB) has also been playing well all season for the Govs. He has 34 (22 solo) tackles, including 6.5 TFLs.
Current OVC Standings (thru games of Oct. 30)
1 – UT Martin 3-0 7-1
2 – Tennessee State 3-1 5-3
SE Missouri 3-1 3-6
4 – Austin Peay 1-2 3-5
Tennessee Tech 1-2 3-5
6 – Eastern Illinois 1-3 1-8
7 – Murray State 0-3 3-5
Last Week’s Results
SE Missouri 38, Eastern Illinois 15
Tennessee State 27, Murray State 21
UT Martin 17, Austin Peay 16
Next Week’s Schedule
Austin Peay at Tennessee State
Murray State – idle
SE Missouri at Murray State
UT Martin at Tennessee Tech
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.