By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Following last week's 43-37 double-overtime loss to Football Championship Subdivision No. 23 Southeast Missouri, the loss was tough for the Tennessee Tech football team, but one couldn't help but feel optimistic for the rest of the season.
After all, the Golden Eagles had literally stood toe-to-toe with one of the favorites to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship and had a play here or there gone another way, could have seen the result come out the other way.
Needless to say, the loss helped build confidence within the Golden Eagles. Through their work last season and this year to this point, Tech has shown itself to be a contender in the Ohio Valley, but its work is far, far from finished.
The Golden Eagles will have to prove that this week as they host UT Martin Saturday night at Tucker Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:05 p.m.
Dylan Vazzano and Sam Brooks will call the game on ESPN+ (subscription required), while Roger Ealey and Wes Gallagher will handle the radio duties on 98.5 KISS FM.
Saturday's game is Public Safety and Military Appreciation Night with fans in their public safety or military uniforms, or with a valid military or public safety ID, will be admitted to the game free.
The game is also Tech's first game in the OVC's Sergeant York Trophy series, sponsored by Delta Dental of Tennessee and Farm Bureau Health Plans. All three of Tech's games in the quadrangular round-robin this season will be played at Tucker Stadium, including Oct. 26 vs. Austin Peay and Nov. 23 vs. Tennessee State.
Should the Golden Eagles prevail on Saturday, it will also mark the program's 150th win all-time in Tucker Stadium. Tech has a 149-132-2 record in the 53-year-old facility and has welcomed 1,966,167 fans through the turnstiles.
The biggest thing for the Golden Eagles though is they're finally home, playing in its home facility for the first time since Sept. 14 against Virginia-Wise, two days shy of an entire month on the road. Tech won the first two games of the road trip, topping Western Illinois out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, then knocked off Eastern Illinois for the Golden Eagles' first conference win of the campaign.
Tech will host four of its final six contests this season.
With Tech's OVC record knotted up at 1-1, the Golden Eagles stand at 4-2 on the season and look to join the list of 48 other five-win seasons or better in out of 98 years of program history. Tech has started 4-2 or better 30 times in program history and just three of those years have ended with a sub-.500 record and eight have ended with Tech raising the OVC trophy.
It marks an incredible turnaround for the Golden Eagle program, which finished 2-20 in the past two seasons. With so much more to play for as six games remain in the 2019 campaign, progress has certainly been made.
One doesn't have to look much further than the scoreboard to prove that. At this point last season, the Golden Eagles had scored 128 points, collecting three rushing touchdowns and eight passing scores. Tech's opponents had run for 23 touchdowns and threw for 17 more. The Golden Eagles were outscored 326-128.
In 2019, it's a completely different story. Tech is outscoring its opponents 222-216. The Golden Eagles have rushed for 12 touchdowns – including eight for sophomore quarterback Bailey Fisher – and passed for 14. Tech's opponents have just one more touchdown – 14 rushing and 13 passing.
Judging by the pregame tale of the tape, the Golden Eagles hold the edge in almost every category. The Skyhawks are averaging 26.8 points a game, Tech 37.0. The Golden Eagles are rushing for 143.0 yards a game, UTM 139.8. Through the air, Tech holds a 282.3- to 196.2-yard advantage and the Golden Eagles' offense has averaged 425.3 yards of total offense to UTM's 336.0.
On defense, Tech is allowing 36.0 points, while the Skyhawks are stingier, allowing 25.6. UTM, however, has allowed more yards, averaging 413.0 to Tech's 385.2 as the Golden Eagles have allowed two fewer rushing and 25 fewer passing yards a game.
It sounds great, but none of that matters once the two teams take the field this Saturday night.
The Skyhawks (3-2, 2-0 OVC) opened its conference slate with a pair of wins over Murray State at home and Eastern Kentucky on the road. They were named the STATS FCS Team of the Week following the Colonels' defeat.
And if any of the names on the UT Martin roster aren't familiar, that's because, like the Golden Eagles, the Skyhawks are fielding a few youngsters. Redshirt freshman quarterback John Bachus III has thrown for 922 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 184.4 yards per game. Colton Dowell, Donnell Williams and Lamarcus Young all have touchdown receptions.
Junior running back Peyton Long has rushed for a team-high five touchdowns and 423 yards, averaging 84.6 yards a game. Jaimiee Bowe and Bachus each have two rushing scores, while Young and Terry Williams have also found the end zone on the ground.
Defensively, JaQuez Akins and Tech's Aderick Moore are standing toe-to-toe with 47 tackles each, while Sherrod Pittman and T.J. Jefferson each have 38 stops. The Skyhawks have nine sacks on the season while creating eight turnovers – five interceptions and three fumbles recovered.
Turnovers have also been a positive for the Skyhawk offense – they have four interceptions and lost just one fumble. Those have been a thorn for the Golden Eagles, losing nine interceptions and five fumbles.
That said, Tech has intercepted five passes and recovered eight fumbles, keeping its turnover ratio near even at just one more giveaway to takeaway.
Fisher is making a run at the Tech single-season record book as he has thrown for 1,538 yards, averaging 256.3 per game. He has thrown 12 touchdowns this season – including six against Eastern Illinois – while also rushing for eight scores this season.
Freshman receiver and return specialist Metrius Fleming has 427 yards on 27 catches but hasn't caught a touchdown pass yet. He's made up for it with two rushing touchdowns and a 91-yard kickoff return TD. Fleming has 322 kickoff return yards this season and is averaging 35.8 yards per return. Fleming recently won his fourth OVC Newcomer of the Week award out of six weeks this season.
Senior running back Andrew Goldsmith had a solid game against the Skyhawks last season, rushing for 60 yards and two touchdowns. This season, Goldsmith has 240 yards and a score on 63 carries. David Gist also has a touchdown run.
Through the air, Darrius Stafford, Austin Hicks and Tavin Kilpatrick have each hauled in three touchdowns, while Gist, Goldsmith, D.J. Wilkes, Justin Oden and Hunter Coleman have also caught touchdown passes.
Senior kicker Haidar Zaidan was named the OVC's Specialist of the Week after hitting three-of-four field goals in his first game back in the role since getting injured against Samford. Zaidan nailed a 51-yarder – the 10th longest in the FCS this season and seventh longest in program history – with 31 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game against SEMO into overtime.
Zaidan is also averaging 64.9 yards per kickoff, helping the Golden Eagles in the field position battle.
Defensively, in addition to Moore's lead in tackles, Seth Carlisle has 36 stops and Shannon Fayne has 29. Carlisle also has a team-high two interceptions on the season, while Tai Carter returned a fumble for a touchdown. Henry Karimu leads the team in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (5.0).
Tickets for Saturday's game are on sale now. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office or visit TTUsports.com to order.
Photo by Tony Marable