SKYHAWKS POWER PAST TENNESSEE TECH IN FIRST ROUND OF SGT. YORK TROPHY SERIES 44-23
September 24, 2016
MARTIN, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee at Martin football team got off to a hot start in Ohio Valley Conference play and its quest for a third straight Sergeant York Trophy with a dynamic 44-23 victory over Tennessee Tech on Saturday afternoon.
In the first of three consecutive contests in the Sgt. York Trophy series, the Skyhawks (2-2, 1-0 OVC) controlled the contest for much of the game. UT Martin led by as much as 19 early in the third quarter in the team’s OVC opener before ultimately pulling off a 21-point victory following a late 43-yard onside kick return for a touchdown by Tae Martin and an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown by Julian Thompson-Clay on the game’s final play.
UT Martin tallied 366 yards of total offense while posting 269 yards through the air. After starting the last two games, junior quarterback entered the game midway into the first quarter before completing 9-of-16 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns. Cook connected with a pair of newcomers in Greg McKillion and Londell Lee for the team’s two touchdowns – combining for five catches for 110 yards.
Senior running back Ladevin Fair paced the Skyhawk ground attack with 47 yards on 11 carries, including a 13-yard touchdown. Sophomore Jaimiee Bowe joined in the action by leading the team with 18 rushing attempts while accumulating 28 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown.
Defense and special teams played big parts in the game once again, both tallying touchdowns of their own. Martin returned an onside kick for a touchdown while Thompson-Clay’s 86-yard interception return proved to be the icing on the cake. Senior linebacker Caleb Counce paced the team with nine tackles, including a sack and a game-high 2.5 tackles for loss. Kevin Prather, Jr. notched eight tackles while the trio of Donald Cofield, Jr. (1.0), Jay Murphy (0.5) and Keith Jones (0.5) each tallied sacks.
“This was an important game when you get to start off OVC play with a victory at home,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “I’m a little disappointed because I thought after four games, that we would know who we are, but we are still searching. Today the pass game woke up a little bit as the run game got stuffed. We know we were battling the heat today, but our defense has enough good players that if we can stop the run, our guys are going to play. They see things now and the game has slowed down for them. It is fun to watch our guys play.”
Despite being flushed from the pocked throughout the contest, Tennessee Tech’s Michael Birdsong was elusive on the day, tallying 56 rushing yards while completing 17-of-38 passes for 274 yards and an interception. The running back duo of Andrew Goldsmith and Yeedee Thaenrat did the bulk of the damage for the Golden Eages, tallying a rushing touchdown each. Sophomore kicker Nick Madonia also converted all three of his field goal attempts from 20, 25 and 42 yards.
Things got off to a bumpy start for the Skyhawks on their first drive of the game. On third and long, starter Gunnar Holcombe would be picked off by Tennessee Tech safety Deontay Wilson, returning the ball to the Skyhawk 24 to set up its first drive. The Golden Eagles would take advantage of the prime scoring position before Thaenrat scored the game’s first points with a one-yard touchdown to give Tennessee Tech an early 6-0 advantage.
The Skyhawks would get on the board on their third drive of the contest after turning the reigns of the offense over to Cook. Cook would convert on a long third down attempt, finding CJ McElrath for a 25-yard reception. With the ball in enemy territory, Fair would break a 15-yard carry to move into the redzone, setting up his backfield mate Bowe for a 14-yard touchdown rush down the right sideline, giving UT Martin a slim 7-6 lead.
UT Martin got back on the board early in the second quarter. After starting the drive on the Tennessee Tech 40, the Skyhawk duo of Cook and McKillion connected for a 40-yard bomb down the right sideline to give the squad a 14-6 advantage.
Tennessee Tech would trim into the lead following the big touchdown play. The Golden Eagles would string together a 10-play drive which would stretch 44 yards before a 42-yard field goal by Madonia would cut the deficit to 14-9.
The Skyhawks looked for one last score in the first half to take a comfortable lead into the break. Beginning the drive on the Tech 43, UT Martin would need four plays to get into the endzone. Najee Ray would rush for four yards to set up Cook for a long pass over the middle to find Lee for a 41-yard touchdown. The score would give the Skyhawks a 21-9 lead going into the break.
UT Martin would get a defensive stop on the first possession of the second half, giving the squad control on its own 23. Cook would move swiftly through the air, finding Caylon Weathers for eight yards before looking downfield to find Ben Axline for a 27-yard reception. Another 10-yard completion to McKillion would move the ball across midfield before eventually finding Lee for a 10-yard gain. With the ball on the 13, Fair would break free and reach the endzone for his first touchdown of the season.
Tennessee Tech would begin its comeback attempt in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. The Golden Eagles would cap a 14-play, 72-yard drive with a 25-yard field goal by Madonia. Later in the quarter, Tech would trim the margin to single-digits following an efficient four-play, 81-yard drive. Birdsong would move the ball through the air, finding Joseph Cunningham for 35 yards before connecting with Thaenrat for a 24-yard reception. With the ball just outside of the redzone, Goldsmith would break loose for a 22-yard touchdown to make the score 28-20.
The Skyhawks would look to pad their advantage midway through the final quarter. With the margin down to eight points, Cook would move the ball through the air by connecting with Kyle Kerrick over the middle for a 51-yard gain. Another completion from Cook to Weathers for 11 yards would put the Skyhawks in redzone, setting Mitch Mersman up for a 25-yard field goal.
After the Golden Eagles would respond with a 20-yard field goal of their own from Madonia to make it an eight-point margin once again, the game took an interesting twist. Trailing by eight points with just over a minute to play, Tennessee Tech would attempt an onside kick. Not only would the Skyhawks recover the attempt, but Martin would snatch the attempt off the bounce and return the kickoff 43-yards for a touchdown to make it a 38-23 contest. The touchdown was the first kickoff return by the Skyhawks since Oct. 6, 2012.
With one last effort, Tennessee Tech would move the ball down the field, even moving into Skyhawk territory. One last heave with less than 10 seconds to go would be intercepted by Thompson-Clay who then returned the interception 86 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown as the clock expired.
UT Martin will look to build upon its brief two-game winning streak with a matchup at Tennessee State on Saturday, Oct. 1. The Skyhawks and Tigers will square off from Hale Stadium at 2 p.m.