By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
MURRAY, Ky. – When the 2021 spring football season ended in April, things looked pretty optimistic for the Murray State Racers. After all, they finished second, just a game back from the departing Jacksonville State, posting a 5-2 record in league play after opening on a 5-0 run, then falling to Austin Peay and Jacksonville State in the final two games of the season.
As the new season opened in the fall, however, it was the trend started in those final two games that seems to have dominated most of this campaign as the Racers stand in the gates for Saturday's contest with a 3-5 record in tow, winless in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Kickoff from Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray on Saturday is 1 p.m. Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano will provide the call on 98.5 KISS FM, while the Racer broadcast crew of Neal Bradley and Josh McKeel will tackle the ESPN+ stream (subscription required).
The 0-3 record in the conference is most definitely a misnomer. Two of the Racers' three wins – Mississippi Valley State out of the SWAC being the lone outlier – have come against OVC competition as Murray State beat Eastern Illinois 22-6 and Southeast Missouri 32-31. But those count as non-conference games, due to the scheduling void created by the departure of Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky to the Atlantic Sun.
Every school in the OVC – with the exception of Tech as the Golden Eagles had already found non-conference games to complete the schedule – had to play one, sometimes even two conference opponents twice in a season. The Racers will complete their season with a visit from Southeast Missouri next week and a finale at Eastern Illinois with those two games counting in the league standings.
In the Racers' last outing – a 27-21 defeat against surging Tennessee State – Murray State trailed 21-0 midway through the third quarter, then put together a furious comeback. Preston Rice and Damonta Witherspoon scored on a pair of rushing touchdowns to cap off two drives of 70-plus yards, then following Malik Honeycutt's 17-yard punt return to the Racer 46, Rice threw a 54-yard connection to LaMartez Brooks for a touchdown. Aaron Baum's PAT was true, tying the game at 21 each with 4:22 remaining in regulation.
The host Tigers spoiled the comeback bid though as Geremy Hickbottom and Devon Starling combined for a drive, moving the chains three times, and concluding as the quarterback Hickbottom rushed in for a seven-yard score with 1:41 remaining in the game. Antonio Zita's PAT attempt was blocked, giving Murray State some hope for a last-second rally. Instead the Tigers forced three incomplete passes and a false start against the Racers, while holding Rice to just an eight-yard pickup as MSU turned the ball over on downs, allowing TSU to go into victory formation.
Offensively, both Tech and the Racers are fairly matched with the Golden Eagles averaging 19 points and Murray 19.6 points a game. MSU has put up just under 400 more yards of offense, averaging 334.4 a game, broken down to 161.3 on the ground and 173.1 through the air for a pretty balanced assault. The Golden Eagles are averaging 287.1 yards of offense, broken down to 137.0 yards on the ground and 150.1 passing.
Defensively, both teams are allowing an average of 28.5 points, both giving up exactly 228 points to opponents through the first eight games of the season. Murray State's opponents are collecting an average of 350.0 yards of offense, 179.9 rushing and 170.1 passing. Tech's opponents are averaging 343.1 yards of offense, 115.2 on the ground (the lowest rate in the OVC) and 227.9 through the air.
In turnover margin, Tech is sixth at -12, Murray seventh at -13. The Golden Eagles have lost 20 – seven fumbles and 13 interceptions – while recovering eight – five fumbles and three interceptions. The Racers have lost 18 – five fumbles and 13 interceptions – and recovered five – two fumbles and three interceptions.
Through six of the Racers' eight games, Rice has thrown for 736 yards and one touchdown, completing 64 of his 124 passing, while throwing 10 interceptions. D.J. Williams has 649 yards and three touchdowns on 54-of-101 passing.
Witherspoon has rushed for five touchdowns among his 151 carries for 577 yards – both team highs. Rice has the most rushing scores though, pushing into the end zone six times. Brooks is the Racers' leading receiver with 322 yards on 26 catches with one TD, while Honeycutt has 289 yards on 16 completions.
Eric Samuta leads the Racer defense with 54 tackles, including 3.5 for-loss. He also has one pass breakup and three QB hurries.
For the Golden Eagles offensively, the biggest story of late has been David Gist. The Cookeville product has rushed for 100-plus yards in the last four games, becoming the first Golden Eagle to do that since Derek White in 2007. In the last four games alone, he has rushed for 516 yards on 80 carries, an average of 6.5 yards per tote, while scoring four rushing and one receiving touchdown. He trails Southeast Missouri running back Geno Hess in 100-yard games this season by just one – Hess with five, Gist with four.
Willie Miller has settled into the quarterback role well, leading the Tech QBs this season with 494 yards on 40-of-89 passing. Quinton Cross leads the Golden Eagle receivers with 399 yards and two touchdowns on 31 catches.
Hayden Olsen is 4-for-5 on field goals, including a season-long of 46, and is 20-for-20 on PATs this season, extending his career mark to 37-for-37.
Josh Reliford leads Tech defense with 55 tackles, including 4.0 for-loss, while also recording five breakups and one QB hurry. Devin Squires and A.J. Hall Jr. each have 2.5 sacks out of Tech's total of 15, while Squires was also the co-OVC Defensive Player of the Week following Tech's last contest against Virginia-Lynchburg after recovering a fumble and returning it for a touchdown.
Tech is 46-39-1 against the Racers all-time in what is the longest-running series in the program's history. Even with the Racers' 36-31 victory in Cookeville in March, the Golden Eagles have won five of the last seven games. The Golden Eagles are coming off of their open date, but have a 15-33-1 record following the open date since 1949. Saturday will also be the sixth game this season that Murray State has played a team coming off of the open date.
Photo | Jim Dillon