SKYHAWK DEFENSE SHINES IN SEASON OPENER AT FBS FOE CINCINNATI
September 1, 2016
CINCINNATI, Ohio – The University of Tennessee at Martin football team battled throughout the night as the defense shined on the main stage, forcing three turnovers and holding a narrow lead until midway through the third quarter against Football Championship Subdivision foe Cincinnati before falling 28-7.
The Skyhawks (0-1) scored on the first drive of the night, stringing together a 14-play drive to take an early 7-0 advantage. The underdogs would hold a narrow margin at the half, marking the first lead against a FBS opponent at halftime in school history while keeping the Bearcats off the scoreboard until the second quarter.
“I thought the kids played hard, there is no doubt about that,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “It went kind of how I thought it would go offensively. We were physical and ran the ball for 177 yards. I thought we could handle the run game and we have to grow at the quarterback position while continuing our growth at the wide receiver position, but we will. Defensively, I know we have a lot of players and they know how to make plays. Tonight showed why I am very confident in our defense.”
Junior safety Kahlid Hagens posted a career high with 15 tackles for the Skyhawks, marking the second most tackles against a FBS opponent since Markeseo Jackson tallied 16 at Western Michigan on Sept. 2, 2004. Fellow junior safety Tae Martin also posted a big contest, tallying 12 tackles – including two tackles for loss.
Defensively, the Skyhawks tallied three first half turnovers, marking the second most forced turnovers against a FBS foe in program history – matching three against Auburn (2008) and Memphis (2012). Newcomer Joseph Este tallied one interception while the duo of Jay Murphy and Anthony Brown notched fumble recoveries. Sophomore Kevin Prather, Jr. tallied the team’s lone sack – an eight-yard loss which resulted in a fumble.
On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore running back Jaimiee Bowe tallied his first 100-yard rushing performance with 102 yards, becoming just the fourth Skyhawk to rush for at least 100 yards against a FBS foe. He joined Abou Toure (113 yards at Memphis in 2013), Jason McNair (112 yards at Mississippi State in 2011) and Miguel Barnes (105 yards at Memphis in 2009) on the exclusive list. Ladevin Fair also tallied 15 carries for 42 yards.
Quarterback Gunnar Holcombe earned his first career start, completing 12-of-26 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown despite throwing two interceptions. Holcombe found friendly target Caylon Weathers four times for 66 yards and one touchdowns.
Cincinnati (1-0) tallied 22 first downs while notching 400 yards of total offense. Hayden Moore completed 21-of-34 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns while notching one interception. Moore found target Devin Gray five times for 111 yards while receivers Nate Cole and Kahlil Lewis each notched touchdown receptions. The ground attack was led by Tion Green who notched 16 carries for 97 yards.
Senior Eric Wilson led the Bearcats with 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. The duo of Tyrell Gilbert and Linden Stephens also left their mark on the game, tallying an interception each.
UT Martin came out of the gates looking to make a statement in its first drive of the 2016 season. The Skyhawks would string together five first downs on the opening drive after taking over possession on their own 25 to start the contest. The team would tally three first downs before seeing a drive stall on third and eight. Needing a little help, Weathers would draw a pass interference penalty to continue the fast start, giving the Skyhawks a first down just outside of the redzone. With new life, Bowe would notch a 12-yard carry to set up first and goal before Holcombe connected with Weathers for a seven-yard touchdown along the left sideline to give the Skyhawks an early 7-0 advantage.
The Skyhawks would turn the game over to their defense on the ensuing drives looking to continue the offense’s momentum. After allowing a big play through the air to Cincinnati, the Skyhawks would buckle down with just 10 yards to their back. The Skyhawks would hold the Bearcats before eventually watching a 24-yard field goal attempt sail wide.
UT Martin’s defense would remain strong on the following two drives, giving the Skyhawks a 7-0 advantage after the first quarter. The Skyhawks would force its first of three first half turnovers after Murphy recovered a fumble stripped by Hagens. Cincinnati would look to push the ball on its third possession, moving the ball 30 yards before Este tallied a diving interception off a tipped pass by James Gilleylen to squash another offensive drive. The defense would flex yet again on the Bearcats fourth drive as Prather, Jr. tallied a sack and a forced fumble while Brown jumped on the loose ball for the team’s third turnover.
With big plays on the defensive side of the ball, UT Martin would threaten but not find the scoring touch inside the redzone. After reaching the redzone on three consecutive scoring drives, a fumble and two missed field goals would squander the team’s promising field position late in the first half.
Cincinnati would finally get on the board in the final seconds of the half. Taking over on their own 20 with just under three minutes to play, the Bearcats would go nearly the length of the field, tallying 12 plays for 80 yards. Green would rush on three straight plays for 20 yards before Moore moved the ball into Skyhawk territory with an 11-yard rush. Consecutive pass completions from Moore to Gray would notch 16 and 21 yard plays, respectively. With the ball on the Skyhawk three, Moore would find Cole for a three-yard touchdown. The extra point would sail wide right.
At halftime, UT Martin would hold its first lead against a FBS opponent in school history with a 7-6 advantage.
Neither team would score on their first two drives of the second half, remaining a one-point lead for the Skyhawks until late in the third quarter. After a punt left Cincinnati with the length of the field ahead of them, the Bearcats would string together a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive which would give the home team its first lead of the contest. Moving the ball both on the ground and through the air, Cincinnati would take the lead on a three-yard completion from Moore to Lewis with 2:42 to play in the third. Following a successful two-point conversion, Cincinnati would hold a 14-7 advantage.
Cincinnati would stay on a roll in the fourth quarter, making the most out of a pair of offensive mistakes late in the game. Clinging to a 14-7 lead, the Bearcats would tally their first of two interceptions, picking off Holcombe on their 23 to start a fresh scoring opportunity. The first play from scrimmage would be a 23-yard rush by Green to move towards midfield. Moore would continue to move the ball through the air, finding Avery Johnson for a 26-yard completion to move to the one. With the ball on the goal line, the Bearcats would cap the drive with a one-yard rush by Mike Boone for a touchdown, giving the home squad a 21-7 lead with 5:31 to play.
Looking for a final push down the field, UT Martin would start its drive on its own 10. A pair of completions from Holcombe to Weathers and Ben Axline would move the Skyhawks within striking distance. Searching for a big play, Holcombe would force a pass into coverage which would be intercepted and returned 58 yards by Gilbert for the game’s final touchdown.
UT Martin will return to action on Saturday, Sept. 10 with a matchup against Mountain West foe Hawai’i. Kickoff from the state capital is scheduled for 11 p.m. CT.