By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – When Tennessee Tech takes to the field on Saturday, the race for the Ohio Valley Conference championship will truly be underway.
The Golden Eagles kick off the OVC slate with a visit from Eastern Illinois. The game is set for a 1:35 p.m. kickoff.
Roger Ealey and Frank Harrell will provide the radio call on 98.5 KISS FM, while Dylan Vazzano and Sam Brooks will handle the broadcast duties on ESPN+ (subscription required).
Saturday is also Poster Day with free season posters, sponsored by First Horizon Bank, available to fans.
There's no question the Golden Eagles have run into some growing pains in the first three weeks. Against two Southern Conference foes in Samford and Furman – both with rich football histories – as well as a trip to Southeastern Conference country with a visit to Tennessee last week, Tech (0-3) has run through one of the most challenging starts the program has had to encounter in some time.
This week, however, starts the games that mean the most for the Golden Eagles. As important as getting wins over the Bulldogs, the Paladins or even the Volunteers would have been for building a Football Championship Subdivision playoff resume, it still boils down to one primary thing – winning the Ohio Valley Conference.
In the league's current alignment, the Golden Eagles have won the most conference titles and have won the second-most games – both overall and in-conference.
Every goal the Tennessee Tech team has set for itself is still in reach – the biggest two being to retain the Sergeant York Trophy and to win the team's 11th OVC championship.
It starts with the Panthers.
Eastern Illinois is also looking for its first win of the season, falling to Indiana State, South Carolina, Dayton and Illinois State to open the campaign. The Panthers are no slouch defensively, though. EIU is currently ranked sixth in the FCS in pass defense, holding two opponents – Illinois State and Indiana State – to under 100 yards passing in games. That number could be a misnomer as EIU has faced some run-heavy offenses early on.
The Panthers are also getting it done on special teams, blocking a field goal and a punt last week against Illinois State. EIU blocked three total kicks last season. Charles Shelton IV blocked the punt, while DeAirious Smith returned the ball for the touchdown.
Otto Kuhns leads the Panther passers with 481 yards on 35-of-73 passing, while Chris Katrenick has 189 yards on 25-of-48 passing.
Robbie Lofton has caught both EIU touchdown passes from Kuhns, hauling in 13 balls for 114 yards. Tyler Ringwood leads in yardage with 133 yards on eight catches.
On the ground, Harrison Bey-Buie leads the Panthers with 129 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. Kuhns and Tyler Hamilton also have rushing scores.
Jordan Vincent leads EIU's defense with 29 tackles, including two pass breakups and a QB hurry. Colin Bohanek and Jason Johnson each have 28 tackles.
The Panthers are allowing 30.0 points per game this season, while giving up 36 points off turnovers.
For Tech, redshirt sophomore quarterback Drew Martin had a solid outing against Tennessee, completing 10-of-14 passes for 93 yards. Despite throwing an interception, he was able to move the ball against the Volunteers late in the contest. Barring any last-minute changes, he is expected to make his first start for the Golden Eagles this weekend.
The offense will also look to shrug off a slow start thus far this season. The Golden Eagles have been kept off the scoreboard the last two weeks – though the second of those was against an SEC program – and are averaging 4.7 points per game through the first three against defenses that are putting up good numbers on the year.
Turnovers have been a factor as opponents have picked off eight passes, including four last week at Tennessee. The defense was able to counteract one of those giveaways as Cameron Hudson recovered a fumble forced by Jayvian Allen.
On the ground, David Gist is averaging 39.7 yards per game with 119 total yards and a rushing touchdown against Samford. Through the air, Quinton Cross leads the Tech receivers with 167 total yards, averaging 55.7 yards per game with 15 catches to his credit. Davis Shanley leads the Golden Eagle quarterbacks with 252 yards on the season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Josh Reliford leads the OVC in tackles with 27 total, while also breaking up three passes and recording a quarterback hurry. Seth Carlisle has 23 tackles and Jamal Boyd 21. K.J. Phillips and Devin Squires also lead the team in sacks with one each.
Eastern Illinois has won eight of the last 10 meetings and have a 20-7 series lead, including a 28-20 meeting this past March in Charleston, Ill. Three of Tech's seven wins in the series have come in Cookeville – 1975 in a pre-OVC meeting, 2004 with a 40-37 overtime victory and a 34-20 victory over a young Jimmy Garoppolo.
Tickets for Saturday's game are on sale – call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office or visit TTUsports.com to order.
Photo | Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information