By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As the Tennessee Tech football team enters its third Ohio Valley Conference game of the Fall 2021 campaign, the Golden Eagles are right in the mix.
As Saturday's game against Tennessee State at Nissan Stadium stands on the horizon, the Golden Eagles presently stand in fourth place in the league standings – UT Martin and Eastern Illinois tied at 1-0, Southeast Missouri at 2-1 and the Golden Eagles at 1-1. Murray State, Tennessee State and Austin Peay are all looking for their first OVC wins of the season – in games that count in the league standings anyway as the other six league schools play fellow members multiple times, but only one counts in the OVC.
With Tech traveling to the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans for this week's matchup, the Golden Eagles will try to ride the momentum of back-to-back wins into a full-blown winning streak with number three circled this weekend against the Tigers of Tennessee State. The game also opens up the hunt for the Sergeant York Trophy as the Golden Eagles look to retain the trophy for a second-straight season.
Kickoff from Nashville on Saturday is slated for 2 p.m. Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano will provide the call on 98.5 KISS FM, while the game will also be broadcast on ESPN+ (subscription required).
Tennessee State leads the all-time series 20-14, dating back to 1984, but in OVC play, the margin is slightly tighter at 18-14 with the Tigers joining the conference in 1988. Tech has won four of the last six meetings in the series, but the Tigers took the last meeting in Nashville in 2018 and the 2019 game at Tucker Stadium. Tech is 2-4 in games at Nissan Stadium and 5-11 all-time in Nashville against the Tigers.
Obviously, much has been made about the Tigers' first-year head coach, Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Titans great Eddie George. He has led the Tigers to a 2-3 record, including a 24-22 victory in their last contest on Oct. 2 over Austin Peay. However, that game does not count in the OVC standings, just reflected on the overall tally.
Geremy Hickbottom threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to Rodell Rahmaan, a 45-yard hookup, with 5:33 remaining in the contest. Antonio Zita knocked the extra point through to make it a 24-16 game.
With 1:56 remaining in the game, APSU quarterback Draylen Ellis connected with Baniko Harley for six on a 16-yard strike. Trailing 24-22, Ellis attempted a game-tying two-point conversion, but the try failed.
The Tigers' next drive took a minute off the clock, giving the Governors one last shot. Peay was able to move 26 yards up the field, but time expired as Ellis completed a short pass to C.J. Evans, which initiated a series of laterals to Drae McCray, Baniko Harley and back to Ellis. The ball moved from the Gov 47 to the Tiger 48, then back to the Peay 45 as the play and the game ended.
Hickbottom ended the game with 301 passing yards and two touchdowns on an 18-for-34 night, while also rushing for another score on 10 carries for 66 yards. Devon Starling rushed for 120 yards on 29 carries, while Rahmaan caught five passes for 129 yards and both of Hickbottom's touchdown strikes.
The Tigers had two double-digit tacklers in the game as Jahsun Bryant had 12 tackles and James Green with 10.
It was also an uncharacteristic night for All-OVC field goal kicker Antonio Zita as he was 1-for-3 on field goals – missing from 29 and 48 yards – and 1-for-2 on PATs. He entered the game 4-for-6 on field goals and 7-of-8 on PATs.
TSU opened the season with back-to-back losses to Grambling State and Jackson State in their HBCU classic matchups, then opened their home slate with a 41-7 victory over Division II Kentucky State. The Tigers opened the OVC schedule at Cape Girardeau, taking a 47-14 loss to Southeast Missouri, who the Golden Eagles defeated 28-17 the following week.
As a team, Tennessee State is averaging 21 points a game and allowing 26. The offense is averaging 356.6 yards of total offense – 130.2 rushing and 226.4 passing – while the defense is allowing an average of 343.8 yards – 155.4 on the ground and 188.4 through the air.
Hickbottom has thrown for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns through five games, averaging 204 yards per outing. He also has two rushing scores. Starling has rushed for 419 yards and a touchdown on 95 carries, averaging 83.8 yards per contest and 4.4 yards per carry. Rahmann has a team-best 309 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 14 catches, averaging 61.8 yards per game. Zaire Thornton has a team-best 15 catches for 262 yards, averaging 52.4 yards a game.
Defensively, the Tigers have forced the fewest turnovers in the OVC – intercepting two passes and recovering one fumble. Tech, however, has the most turnovers lost with 16 – 10 interceptions and six fumbles.
After falling in the first four games of the season at Samford and Tennessee and home against Furman and Eastern Illinois, the Golden Eagles have rebounded with back-to-back victories against Southeast Missouri and NC Central.
Against the Redhawks, Tech lost two fumbles, but gained the ball on an interception. At NC Central, Tech recovered a fumble, but lost an interception and a fumble.
For the season, Tech is scoring an average of 13.8 points, allowing 32.5 points per game and collecting an average of 259.0 yards of offense. In the two victories alone, the Golden Eagles are averaging 27.5 points, allowing 16.5 points and averaging 322 yards of offense.
Willie Miller came in strong against SEMO and handled the field general duties well against NC Central. For the season, he has 278 yards passing with three touchdown passed on a 24-for-53 rate. Quinton Cross has caught two touchdowns, collecting 28 catches for 373 yards to lead Tech's receivers with a 62.2-yard average.
Running back David Gist has collected career-high rushing totals in back-to-back games, rushing for 133 yards and two touchdowns against SEMO on 25 carries, then 143 yards on 19 totes against NCCU. In the last two games alone, Gist is averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
On special teams, Hayden Olsen knocked in Tech's first two field goals of the season against NCCU last week as the team stands at 2-for-4 on field goals. He hit two 46-yarders and collected three PATs to remain perfect in his career on extra tries, earning a career-high nine points for the second time in his Tech career and collect OVC Specialist of the Week honors.
Defensively, Josh Reliford leads the Golden Eagles with 48 tackles, while Seth Carlisle has 35 and Jack Warwick 32. Jalon Baker and Jamaal Singleton have intercepted passes, while Cameron Hudson and Chris Tucker have fumble recoveries.
Tech (2-4, 1-1 OVC) returns to Tucker Stadium next week for its final non-conference contest of the season, hosting Virginia-Lynchburg.
Photo | Jim Dillon