October 1, 2016

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In a game which featured four lead changes in the final quarter of play, the University of Tennessee at Martin football team could not overcome a late touchdown by Tennessee State with 11 seconds to play, dropping its first Ohio Valley Conference and its first contest in the Sgt. York Trophy series since 2013 by a score of 34-30.

The Skyhawks (2-3, 1-1 OVC) led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter before battling back after being held scoreless in the second and third quarters. With Tennessee State holding a narrow 17-16 lead heading into the fourth, the two teams combined to score 31 points in the final quarter of play which featured four lead changes. UT Martin posted a 370 yards of total offense despite being held to just 49 rushing yards in the contest. Despite the discrepancy, the Skyhawks made up for the team’s inability to move the ball on the ground by converting 10-of-12 third-down conversions primarily through the air.  

“They are a good football team and I take my hat off to them, they played hard and responded when they needed to,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “I told our team that I was proud of our effort and that they did a great job making some plays. At the end of the day, we just have to get those third-down stops and get off the field. It was disappointing because if we do those things and don’t turn the ball over, we are probably walking away with a victory.

Quarterback Troy Cook notched his third start of the season while tallying career highs in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. On the day, Cook completed 27-of-39 pass attempts for 318 yards and four touchdowns – along with three interceptions.

Cook’s primary target was the junior duo of Caylon Weathers and Londell Lee with seven catches each. Weathers led the team with 88 receiving yards while Lee tallied 86 of his own. Joining in the scoring action was the quartet of Weathers, Lee, Jaimiee Bowe and Ben Axline who each notched touchdown receptions.

On the defensive side of the ball, junior Kahlid Hagens led the team with nine tackles while Joseph Este and James Gilleylen trailed close behind with seven apiece. The trio of Caleb Counce, Damani Taylor and Keith Jones each tallied sacks against the Tigers who entered the game without an allowed sack in the team’s first three games. Jones posted six total tackles while notching 2.5 tackles for loss on the afternoon.

Tennessee State (4-0, 1-0 OVC) remained unbeaten on the season behind the play of quarterback Ronald Butler who completed 17-of-24 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns in his first start of the season. Butler found his favorite target Patrick Smith six times for 57 yards and two touchdowns while Erick Evans led the ground attack with 15 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown.

The Tiger defense was smothering throughout the day, tallying seven tackles for loss, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Laquarius Cook paced the team with 10 tackles while the duo of Ebenezer Ogundeko and Chris Collins combined for four tackles for loss. David Kamara tallied the team’s lone sack on the afternoon.

UT Martin would come out of the gates looking to make a statement. After a sizeable kick return on the Skyhawks opening kickoff, the squad would use a trifecta of big third down conversion from Cook to Londell Lee to keep the offensive drive alive. Facing third and long on three different occasions, Cook would find Lee for 11, 22 and 20-yard receptions, respectively, moving the Skyhawks into the redzone. Following tackle for loss, Cook would turn to the air once again, this time finding Bowe on the left sideline who punctuated the reception by vaulting a defender and diving into the endzone to give the Skyhawks a 7-0 advantage.

Facing one of the nation’s best offensive line units, the Skyhawks flushed Tennessee State’s quarterback Ronald Butler into the endzone. Looking to escape their own endzone, the Tigers would be called for an intentional grounding penalty which would result in a safety for the Skyhawks – their first of the season – giving the visitors an early 9-0 lead.

Following the safety, UT Martin would receive a short kickoff which Tae Martin returned 30 yards to the TSU 37. With prime scoring position, Bowe would rip a pair of long runs to move inside the redzone with a fresh set of downs. The ground attack would continue its strong start as Fair moved the Skyhawks to first and goal after tallying rushes for 13 combined yards. Looking at first and goal from the four, Cook would look to the air again, finding Weathers for a four-yard touchdown in the middle of the endzone.

After being held scoreless in its first quarter of the season while facing a 16-0 deficit after the first quarter of play, Tennessee State would look to strike early in the second. Anchored behind a big offensive line, the Tigers would hit the ground through Earl Harrison who tallied a pair of carries for 13 yards each. Nearly coming up with a big sack, UT Martin would be called for a key personal foul on a facemask penalty, giving the Tigers new life. Moving into Skyhawk territory, Butler would find Dantwaun O’Neal and Patrick Smith for 13-yard completions to move inside the redzone in the final seconds of the first. The Tigers would cap their 12-play scoring drive on the opening play of the second quarter with a nine-yard rush by Erick Evans for a touchdown.

The Tigers would strike again midway through the second quarter. Starting the drive on its own 46 following an interception return, TSU would quickly move down the field. Three rush attempts would notch a first down before a sack by Damani Taylor and Keith Jones marked the first allowed by the Tigers this season. Following the sack and facing fourth-and-long, Tennessee State would turn to gifted kicker Lane Clark which booted a school-record 54-yard field goal to trim the deficit to 16-10.

Tennessee State would come out looking to take its first lead of the contest straight out of the halftime break. Butler would start the drive by connecting with Steven Newbold for 22 yards before finding Rodney Morris for a 43-yard completion to the Skyhawk one-yard line. The Tigers would cap off the four-play drive with a one-yard pass completion from Butler to Smith for a touchdown, giving the squad a 17-16 advantage.

Facing the team’s first deficit of the contest, UT Martin looked to get the lead back on a drive which spanned both the third and fourth quarters. Beginning the drive on the team’s own 30, Cook would connect with Weathers for a 39-yard completion down the left sideline. Positioned in enemy territory, Cook would then find Bowe on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 14-yard pass down the right side to move to the 11. After drawing an offsides penalty, the Skyhawks would strike through the air as Cook found Axline for a seven-yard strike to retake the 23-17 lead.

Tennessee State would charge back on the ensuing drive, tallying a go-ahead touchdown following a nine-play drive. Butler would notch a strong drive, willing the Tiger offense down the field on his back. Butler would move the ball through the air with a 23-yard completion before later notching another first down with his legs following an 11-yard carry. With the ball sitting on the UTM 27, Butler would then find Newbold for an 18-yard reception before connecting with Chris Sanders-McCollum for a three-yard touchdown to put the home squad back on top.

The Tigers would look to pad their lead after forcing their fourth turnover of the afternoon following a fumble. Taking over on the Skyhawk 44, TSU would be stopped on the drive setting up yet another deep field goal attempt by Clark. After setting a program record with 54-yard attempt earlier in the game, Clark shattered the record and posted a Division-I season-long 57-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 27-23 advantage with just under eight minutes to go.

Needing a big scoring drive to give the squad a chance, the Skyhawks began their push on the team’s 25. The drive almost came to a halt on third and long before Cook found friendly target Lee for a nine-yard completion and a first down. Later facing a fourth-and-one, Cook scrambled out of pocket to find CJ McElrath for a 20-yard completion to keep the team’s hopes alive. A pair of hard hits to Cook would force his exit, giving way to back-up Gunnar Holcombe. The new signal-caller would complete his first completion before drawing a pass interference penalty while taking a hard shot. After a brief breather, Cook would return to the field before finding Lee in the endzone on his first play back for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Skyhawks back on top 30-27 with two minutes to play.

Trailing by three with two minutes to play, Tennessee State would look for a little late magic to keep its undefeated season alive. Butler would find his main target Smith for an 11-yard completion before keeping the ball for a 10-yard carry for a second consecutive first down. After taking a hard hit following a sack, Butler would find Rowland through the air once again, this time for a 38-yard gain to move the team into the redzone with less than a minute to play. The Skyhawks would stay tough, holding the Tigers out of the endzone until a third-down conversion resulted in a leaping catch by Smith for the game-winning touchdown.

UT Martin will return to action on Saturday, Oct. 8 when the team plays host to OVC foe Austin Peay in a homecoming contest. Kickoff from Hardy M. Graham Stadium is scheduled for 2 p.m.

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