By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It's been just four-and-a-half months since the Tennessee Tech football team last saw action on the gridiron in the spring.
Not even 150 days have passed since the Golden Eagles were playing in a game that counted.
As Thursday night arrives, it'll be back to business as usual as Tech travels to Birmingham to take on the Samford Bulldogs.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ (subscription required) with Curt Bloom, Chad Pilcher and Blake Gardner on the call, while Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano will provide Tech's coverage on 98.5 KISS FM.
On paper, the Golden Eagles may look young. After all, there are as many as 25 freshmen who could appear in Thursday night's contest, but 15 of those are guys who played in the spring and got as many as all seven games under their belts in Ohio Valley Conference competition. Youth with experience could be a great thing for Tech, especially with guys like Jyron Gilmore, Cameron Hudson and Nyquan Washington.
Speaking of the Golden Eagle secondary, those players will be tested with Samford's high-octane offense. Head coach Chris Hatcher – a familiar face from his days at Murray State – likes a fast tempo and has had a pretty good repertoire of signal-callers under his watch. Tech saw quarterback Liam Welch in the 2019 contest and was able to hold him relatively in check – keeping him to minus-6 yards rushing and one yard passing.
How times have changed – Welch was named to the College Football Performance Awards FCS Performer of the Year Trophy watch list last week, after earning Southern Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, Preseason All-American and Walter Payton Award watch list nods. Last season, he was the second-leading producer in total offense, averaging 424.2 yards per game, while also ranking fourth in the Football Championship Subdivision with 373.3 passing yards per game.
Ty King, A.J. Toney and Montrell Washington put up great numbers as receivers and were also really strong on the return game, making them threats in multiple aspects of the game.
The Golden Eagle defense, however, brings back an incredibly experienced nucleus with Marcus McMeans and Josh Reliford at corner, Seth Carlisle at linebacker, and Chris Tucker, Jale'n Gladney and Henry Karimu up front. The bulk of the Tech experience lies on the Golden Eagle defense.
That's no knock on the offense by any means. Sophomore quarterback Willie Miller proved himself well during the Spring 2021 campaign in the absence of injured quarterback Bailey Fisher, leading the team in passing and second on the team in rushing. The quarterback position will also be bolstered with the addition of Western Kentucky transfer Davis Shanley. A former Tech recruit before joining the Hilltoppers, Shanley graduated early and made the transition to Cookeville this summer.
At wide receiver, the quarterbacks will have plenty of targets. With the return of Metrius Fleming, Justin Oden and Brad Clark, as well as the emergence of Quinton Cross, Tanner Shiver and Hunter Barnhart, there are plenty of weapons Tech can employ to make the Samford secondary work.
One of the most crucial returns is that of running back David Gist. The junior saw his Spring 2021 campaign cut short in the second game at Jacksonville State, but the Cookeville native is back to full speed and looks to make a huge impact this season.
Up front, the Golden Eagles have a lot of experience in Kurt Huff at center, getting set to start his 39th game in his career. He anchors an offensive front with Trevor Stephens, Spencer Stachyra, Ellis Adams and Isaac Cross prepared to make room for the skill positions.
On extra points and PATs, Hayden Olsen will take the top spot once more. Entering an extended freshman season, Olsen led all scorers with 38 points as he was a perfect 17-for-17 on PATs and 7-for-12 on field goals with a long kick of 52 yards.
When Tech and Samford last met, the Golden Eagles were trying to bounce back from a 1-10 campaign in 2018. After Tech led 12-0, Samford barked back, claiming a 38-15 advantage with six minutes to go in the third quarter. With just two minutes remaining in regulation, the Bulldogs led 44-28.
Then came what might have seemed to be an improbable comeback. Tech put together two scoring drives. The first went six plays and 56 yards, ending on a 12-yard Bailey Fisher pass to Justin Oden with 1:18 left, the two connecting on the two-point try. With some special teams trickery, Haidar Zaidan completed the onside kick as Darrius Stafford recovered the ball. Tech drove down the field 52 yards on seven plays in 45 seconds, ending as Fisher scored on an eight-yard keeper. He rushed in again on the two-point conversion, knotting the game at 44 with 31 seconds remaining.
Tech opened the overtime on offense and Fisher scored again on a six-yard rush, Zaidan's PAT true. Chris Oladokun countered on the other end with a 25-yard scoring strike to Chris Shelling, the extra point tying the game once more.
Samford started the second free period on offense and it was an identical result – a 25-yard touchdown pass to Shelling and the extra-point good. Andrew Goldsmith picked up one yard on Tech's first play, then caught a 10-yard pass from Fisher to move the chains. Goldsmith took the handoff and completed the series with a 14-yard run for six.
It all came down to the two-point conversion. Fisher looked to pass. Gist got open and the quarterback sailed a pass toward the local product. Gist made a leaping grab and landed back in the end zone, Tennessee Tech the 59-58 victors.
In the all-time series, Samford leads 12-11 with the Golden Eagles taking five of the eight meetings since the 2000 campaign.
Following Thursday's contest, the Golden Eagles will return home for the Tucker Stadium opener on Sept. 11 against Furman at 1:30 p.m.
Season tickets for Tech football are on sale – call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office or visit TTUsports.com to order.