With Halloween looming on the horizon what has already taken place in the Ohio Valley Conference football landscape has been downright ghoulish compared to recent seasons.
Not only has the exit of former league members Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State resulted in the league playing a round-robin schedule with several games between OVC members being considered non-conference games the names atop the current leaderboard are names that have been absent from that perch for several seasons.
UT Martin and Eastern Illinois currently share the top spot in the league standings. The Skyhawks have claimed just one previous OVC championship (2006) and the Panthers, winners of seven league crowns in school history, have not finished atop the league standings since 2013.
The bottom of the league standings heading into this weekend’s slate of games, has two schools which figured to be in the running for the conference championship when the season began six weeks ago.
Austin Peay, which last won the OVC in 2019, and Murray State are both still seeking their first conference win of the season. The Racers have not won a conference title since 2002.
UT Martin (1-0 OVC/4-1 Overall) at Eastern Illinois (1-0 OVC/1-5 Overall)
When: Oct. 16 (2:00 p.m. CT)
Where: O’Brien Field (10,000), Charleston, Ill.
Radio: WCMT1410 AM/100.5 FM (Martin), HIT MIX 88.9 FM (Charleston)
First Meeting: 1995
All-Time Series: EIU leads 15-11
Last Meeting: UTM 28, EIU 15 (spring 2021)
Few people outside of Charleston, Ill. could have imagined Eastern Illinois and conference leader would be used in the same sentence during the 2021 season.
But here we are and there the Panthers sit atop the league standings. And it’s possible EIU could even create more distance between themselves and the rest of the league depending on how the other two games being played Saturday play out.
Keon Howard (6-1, 215, Grad., QB) continues to take the Ohio Valley Conference by storm since arriving as a graduate transfer from Tulane. The former Green Wave signal caller has been instrumental in leading UT Martin to atop the conference standings and a steady climb up the national rankings by winning each of the past four games heading into Saturday’s clash with conference co-leader Eastern Illinois.
Howard has completed 85 of 138 passes for 1,022 yards and has thrown eight touchdowns already and has been intercepted four times. He has chipped in with 287 rushing yards on 52 carries (5.5 yp) and six additional scores.
UT Martin also has one of the most versatile running backs in the league in the form of senior standout Peyton Logan (5-8, 190) who has carried 56 times for 446 yards (8.0 ypc) and has added 132 yards through the air on 11 receptions. He has scored once on the ground and twice on passes this season. Backfield mate Zak Wallace (6-0, 220, RS-Fr.) has chipped in with 222 yards on 51 carries (4.4 ypc) and has scored six TDs for the Skyhawks.
A trio of receivers are pacing a potent corps of pass catchers for the Skyhawks. Colton Dowell (6-3, 215, RS-Jr.) leads the way with 21 receptions for 375 yards and two scores while Zoe Roberts (5-11, 185, Fr.) has collected 122 yards on 11 catches and Marqwell Odom (5-8, 165, Sr.) also has 11 receptions that have gone for 89 yards.
Deven Sims (6-2, 200, RS-Jr., S) leads a Martin defense that has four players averaging at least five total tackles per game this season. He has a team-best 36 (17 solo) tackles, including two tackles for negative yardage. John Ford (6-3, 230, Grad., LB) ranks second on the team with 28 (11 solo) tackles while teammates Takeem Young (6-1, 200, RS-Sr., S) and D’Carrious Stephens (6-0, 225, Grad., LB) are both on Ford’s heels. Young has 27 (16 solo) tackles and Stephens has 26 (11 solo) tackles to his credit.
Heading into Saturday’s game against UT Martin it appears a big question mark surrounds Eastern Illinois. Just who will start under center for the key conference clash between league leaders?
The only thing for certain is that either Otto Kuhns (6-3, 205, Fr.) or Chris Katrenick (6-3, 215, Grad.) will lead the first offensive series for EIU. Kuhns has completed 34 of his 109 passes this season for 701 yards and four touchdowns (four interceptions). Katrenick, meanwhile, has played sparingly this season and has completed 37 of 83 passes for 364 yards and one touchdown (three interceptions). His lone scoring pass on the year came two weeks ago in a loss to Murray State in a game that did not count in the OVC standings.
Harrison Bey-Buie (5-10, 205, Fr., RB) leads the Panthers in rushing this season. He has carried the ball 69 times for 249 yards (3.6 ypc) and has run for a pair of scores in his first collegiate season. But it’s through the air that the Panthers have done their most damage.
Robbie Lofton (6-3, 185, RS-Sr., WR), Arron Foulkes (5-8, 165, Fr., WR), DeAirious Smith (5-11, 17, Fr., WR) and Tyler Ringwood (6-2, 215, RS-Sr., WR) have combined for 46 catches and 656 yards along with five touchdowns.
Lofton has a team-high 15 receptions for 128 yards while Foulkes, who was on the receiving end of Katrenick’s scoring pass two weeks ago against the Racers, has a team-best 214 receiving yards this season and is one of three Panthers to register a 100-yard receiving performance in 2021.
Smith, who had 109 yards in a win over Tennessee Tech, now has 11 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns on the year while Ringwood has tallied eight catches for 133 yards this season. He had 116 of those yards in a game against Indiana State earlier this season.
A rather young EIU defense is also one of the most active and athletic units in the OVC this season.
Jason Johnson (6-2, 200, So., LB) is far and away the team’s leader on defense in terms of statistics. He has already tallied a conference-leading 57 (33 solo) tackles this season, including five tackles for loss while Colin Bohanek (6-0, 210, Fr., LB) has added 47 (23 solo) stops which includes 4.5 TFLs.
Jordan Vincent (5-10, 185, Fr., SS) and Jordan Miles (6-2, 215, Fr., DE) have also been consistent on defense so far this season. Vincent has 38 (30 solo) tackles (3.5 TFLs) while Miles has 24 (11 solo) stops to his credit. His 9.5 tackles for loss leads the team in that category.
Russell Dandy (6-0, 175, Jr., DB), the OVC defensive player of the week following EIU’s game against Murray State in which he had seven solo tackles and a pair of interceptions, now has 21 (19 solo) tackles on the season.
Tennessee Tech (1-1 OVC/2-4 Overall) at Tennessee State (0-1 OVC/2-3 Overall)
When: Oct. 16 (2:00 p.m. CT)
Where: Nissan Stadium (69,143), Nashville, Tenn.
TV/Streaming: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: 98.5 KISS FM (Cookeville), 102.1 FM (Nashville)
First Meeting: 1984
All-Time Series: TSU leads 20-14
Last Meeting: TTU 24, TSU 10 (spring 2021)
As the 2021 season hits the midway point Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State are both looking for consistency on both sides of the football that can be parlayed into success down the stretch and neither team can afford another loss if they are to become a serious contender for a possible conference championship
GOLDEN EAGLE LEADERS
Tennessee Tech as a chance to entrench itself in the mix of things in the race toward an Ohio Valley Conference championship. Anything less than a win over Tennessee State won’t necessarily slam the door on those hopes but will certainly leave no room for further missteps as the season continues to unfold.
If Tech is to seriously challenge for the league title and a berth in the FCS playoffs the Golden Eagles must improve its offensive production. Tech is averaging just 259 yards of total offensive through the first six games of the season, including a paltry 97.3 yards on the ground. TTU is averaging just 13.8 points per game on offense while the defense is yielding 32.5 points per contest.
Willie Miller (6-0, 178, So.) is one of three quarterbacks who have seen action for Tech this season. He is the only one of that trio who has seen action in all six games. Miller has completed 24 of 53 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns. His yardage total is second on the team.
David Gist (5-11, 190, Jr., RB) has rushed 93 times for 457 yards (4.9 ypc) and four touchdowns on the season to lead the Golden Eagles in both categories. He has added 22 receptions for 140 yards through the air. His 133 yards rushing against SEMO last week was a new career high.
The team’s leading pass catcher is Quinton Cross (5-11, 175, RS-So., WR) who has hauled in 28 passes for 373 yards and a pair of scores so far in 2021.
Tech has three standouts on defense who are all averaging more than five tackles per game. Josh Reliford (5-10, 200, RS-Jr., DB) has recorded 48 (26 solo) tackles, including four tackles for loss, to pace the Golden Eagles. Teammate Seth Carlisle (6-0, 225, Jr., LB) ranks second on the team with 35 (14 solo) tackles while Jack Warwick (6-0, 224, RS-So.), another linebacker, has tallied 32 (18 solo) tackles and two of those have resulted in negative yardage.
Nyqua Washington (5-11, 170, Fr., DB) and Jamal Boyd (6-0, 190, So., DB) have chipped in with 28 and 27 total tackles, respectively. Washington has 21 solo tackles to his credit while Boyd has 13 unassisted stops.
Geremy Hickbottom (6-4, 210, Sr., QB) threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns while adding 66 yards rushing on 10 carries as Tennessee State stunned Austin Peay 24-22 last weekend. The TSU signal caller has thrown for 1,020 yards this season and has tossed seven touchdown passes.
Devon Starling (6-1, 200, Fr., RB), one of the top young running backs in the OVC, led the Tigers with 120 yards on 29 carries in the win over the Govs. He has 419 yards on 95 carries (4.4 ypc) and is averaging 83.3 yards per game on the ground.
Rodell Rahmann (6-4, 230, Sr., TE) has a team-best 309 receiving yards on 14 receptions and has scored five TDs this season. Teammate Zaire Thornton (6-2, 180, Fr., WR) has a team leading 15 catches for 262 yards.
Jahsun Bryant (6-2, 225, Jr., LB) and James Green (5-11, 184, So., S) both had big days on defense for TSU a week ago. Bryant finished with 12 tackles in the game and Green added 10.
Tennessee State enters Saturday’s game against the Golden Eagles with an offense that is averaging 21 points per game along with a potent offensive attack that is putting up 356.6 yards per contest.
Murray State (0-1 OVC/2-3 Overall) at Southeast Missouri (2-1 OVC/2-4 Overall)
When: Oct. 16 (2:00 p.m. CT)
Where: Houck Field (10,000), Cape Girardeau, Mo.
TV/Streaming: ESPN+ (subscription req’d)
Radio: Froggy 103.7 (Murray), Real Rock 99.3 FM (Cape Girardeau)
First Meeting: 1926 (MSU 3, SEMO 0)
All-Time Series: MSU leads 41-13-1
Last Meeting: MSU 24, SEMO 21 (spring 2021)
Southeast Missouri coach Tom Matukewicz made the bold statement during the OVC preseason Media Day that his team had the talent to “run the table” in the conference this season.
While that vision fell to the wayside earlier this season, his Redhawks still have a great chance to winning the league and securing the OVC’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs.
Saturday’s game against nationally-ranked Murray State is considered a non-conference game but the outcome will certainly give the victor plenty of optimism moving forward.
MURRAY STATE LEADERS
Murray State got the nod during the preseason to emerge as the eventual Ohio Valley Conference champions. That can still happen, but the Racers must find consistency on both sides of the ball in order to make an appearance in the playoffs a reality.
MSU has one of the most balanced offenses in the Ohio Valley Conference this season. The Racers come into Saturday’s game against SEMO averaging 161.5 yards on the ground and have been adding 149.8 yards per game through the air.
Preston Rice (6-2, 227, RS-Jr.) continues to operate the MSU offense from his quarterback position. He has completed 53 of 99 passes for 599 yards and is still looking to complete his first scoring pass of the 2021 season. One knock against the leader of the Racer offense is the fact he has already been intercepted eight times in his team’s five games. Rice has also carried 30 times for 80 yards (2.7 ypc) and has scored five times on the ground.
Damonta Witherspoon (5-10, 206, RS-Fr., RB) leads Murray in rushing with 280 yards on 70 carries (4.0 ypc) and has scored twice for the Racers. Finding a complementary back for Witherspoon would go a long way in helping MSU toward the league championship. LaMartez Brooks (6-1, 192, RS-Jr., WR) is the team’s leading receiver with 17 receptions for 211 yards.
Eric Samuta (5-10, 215, RS-Jr., LB) is pacing the Racers in tackles this season. He has already tallied 20 (6 solo) tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker mate Levi Metheny (6-0, 233, RS-Sr.) is right behind with 19 (12 solo) tackles on the year.
The Racers also have a pair of active and productive players in the secondary. Cortez Roberts (5-11, 198, RS-Jr., S) shares the team lead in tackles with Samuta, which includes 14 solo tackles. DaVontae McKee (5-10, 174, RS-So., CB) has 11 (10 solo) tackles and a team-best two interceptions.
Geno Hess (5-8, 209, Sr., RB) is having a solid season as he hopes to close his collegiate career by helping the Redhawks into the postseason. He has scored a rushing touchdown in five straight game and has surpassed the 100-yard plateau three times this season.
He has already rushed for 585 yards on 115 carries (5.1 ypc) and nine touchdowns this fall and needs just 109 more yards to reach 2,000 for his career. He is currently 10th on the school’s all-time rushing list with 1,891 yards. He is the leading scorer in the Ohio Valley Conference and ranks 16th nationally.
Hess’ nine TDs are the most in the OVC this season seven have come in the last three games. He is currently tied for third among SEMO’s all-time career rushing touchdown leaders with 27 and has a chance of taking over the top mark at the school by the time the 2021 comes to an end. He needs just 10 more TDs on the ground to surpass the current standard of 36 TDs held by Walter Smallwood (1965-68).
Hess, the reigning OVC co-offensive player of the week after rushing for 116 yards against Austin Peay, has also caught four passes on the year for 64 yards and has amassed 108.3 all-purpose yards per game through the first six games of the season.
Shamenski Rucker (5-10, 175, So., RB) has taken a bit of the rushing load off Hess and has run for 185 yards on 35 carries (5.3 ypc) and has found the end zone three times. He ranks second on the team with his rushing output and is part of a SEMO squad that is averaging 207 yards per game on the ground.
Transfer quarterback CJ Ogbonna (6-2, 215, Jr.) has stepped in to lead the SEMO offense in his first season in Cape Girardeau. He has completed 51 of 106 passes for 546 yards and has thrown for four touchdowns (five interceptions) for the Redhawks. He also ranks third on the team with 51 carries for 180 yards (3.5 ypc).
Three players have combined for 33 receptions and 427 yards for SEMO this season. Johnny King (6-4, 180, Sr., WR) leads that trio with 14 catches for 169 yards, both team-highs, and two touchdowns, which also tops the team’s receiving charts. Terrell Jester (6-0, 190, Sr.) and Rashaan Palmer (6-4, 217, Jr.), two other wide receivers, have chipped in with 12 and seven receptions, respectively. Jester’s catches have gone for 128 yards, just two yards fewer than Palmer’s receptions.
SEMO’s defense, which recorded a season-high six takeaways in the win over Austin Peay last weekend, is being led by three players who are averaging at least four total tackles per game this season. But the Redhawks are also allowing opponents 458.2 yards of total offense per game.
Bryce Norman (6-0, 220, Fr., LB) leads the defense with 31 (21 solo) tackles and is tied for the team lead with 6.5 tackles for loss. He shares to spot with fellow linebacker Brandon Mincey (6-0, 242, Sr.), who was voted the OVC defensive player of the week earlier this week, who has 27 (13 solo) stops on the season so far. He tallied six (5 solo) tackles in last week’s win over Austin Peay and added an interception. Jacob Morrisey (6-0, 205, So.), another linebacker, has tallied 24 (15 solo) tackles and is tied for the team lead with 2.5 sacks.
Current OVC Standings (thru games of Oct. 9)
1 – UT Martin 1-0 4-1
Eastern Illinois 1-0 1-5
3 – SE Missouri 2-1 2-4
4 – Tennessee Tech 1-1 2-4
5 – Murray State 0-1 2-3
Tennessee State 0-1 2-3
Austin Peay 0-1 2-4
Last Week’s Results
Southeast Missouri 30, Austin Peay 14
Tennessee Tech 27, N.C. Central 16
UT Martin 48, Murray State 24
Next Week’s Games
Austin Peay at Murray State
Southeast Missouri at UT Martin
Tennessee State at Eastern Illinois
Virginia-Lynchburg 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.