SKYHAWK DEFENSE IS TOO MUCH FOR NO. 24 EASTERN ILLINOIS IN 33-17 ROAD VICTORY
November 5, 2016
YouTube: Simpson Postgame Press Conference (Photo courtesy of Sandra King, EIU Athletics)
CHARLESTON, Ill. – The University of Tennessee at Martin went on the road and knocked off nationally ranked Ohio Valley Conference foe No. 24 Eastern Illinois 33-17 on Saturday afternoon to keep the team’s championship hopes alive. The Skyhawks forced the Panthers into a season-high seven turnovers while limiting their opponent to just 297 yards of total offense.
The Skyhawks (6-4, 5-1 OVC) picked up their fourth consecutive OVC victory behind a stingy defense effort and timely conversions en route to the program’s first win over a ranked opponent of the season. UT Martin jumped out to an early lead for the seventh time this season while forcing a season-high seven turnovers which ranked as the most since forcing seven against Eastern Illinois on Oct. 23, 2004.
Four different Skyhawks tallied interceptions in the contest with Sheldon Dawson tallying a first quarter pick before the trio of Chris Williams-Hall, Kahlid Hagens and Joseph Este each tallied interceptions in the fourth quarter. UT Martin also forced a pair of fumbles while recovering three on the day as Kevin Prather, Jr. stripped a pair of fumbles loose while joining Hagens and Este with recoveries. The contest also marked the third consecutive game and fourth time this season that the Skyhawks have held their opponent to fewer than 300 yards of total offense.
UT Martin tallied nine tackles for loss in the contest led by senior Damani Taylor with two of his three tackles going for loss. Prather and Hagens paced the team with nine tackles on the day while the trio of James Gilleylen, Joseph Este and Tae Martin tallied six each.
On the offensive side of the ball it was senior running back Ladevin Fair who led the way for the Skyhawks. Fair paced the squad in carries for the second straight week with 17 while tallying 60 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore tailback Jaimiee Bowe also got in the endzone following 16 carries for 62 yards.
“I’ve very proud of the kids,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “We kind of approach it as that we are a bunch of nameless faces as opponents because it is all about us. It was a great job by our defense, scoring for the sixth time this season while playing smart on special teams and running the ball effectively. We were able to play conservatively because of how well our defense was playing. It was a big win for us on the road and I’m very proud of this football team.”
No. 24 Eastern Illinois (5-5, 3-4 OVC) struggled to get much going while being held under 300 yards of total offense for the second consecutive week. The Panthers leaned heavily on bright spot Devin Church who tallied 13 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown while the quarterback trio of Austin Green, Bud Martin and Jared Pilson combined to complete just 12-of-26 passes for one touchdown and four interceptions.
Like for much of the season, UT Martin would not only get on the board first in the contest for the seventh time this season, but would rely on its defense to preserve the shutout on the Panthers opening drive. Following a turnover on downs on the offensive side, the defense would keep Eastern Illinois out of the redzone as Prather stripped and recovered a fumble to stall the potential scoring drive.
After taking over on UT Martin’s own 28 following the recovery, Troy Cook would look down the field to find Caylon Weathers for a 12-yard completion. Back-to-back rushes by Fair would notch yet another first down while moving across midfield. With the Skyhawks on the 50, Eastern Illinois would commit three personal fouls over the following four plays to set up first and goal from the EIU five-yard line. Benefitting for the other team’s miscues, Fair would make the Panthers pay by rumbling into the endzone for a five-yard touchdown – the fourth of the season.
The game would take a sloppy turn on the following two drives. Eastern Illinois would begin its ensuing drive on the seven before looking to the air. On second and eight, the Panthers would look for a deep pass but Dawson would tally an interception and return the ball 22 yards for his second pick of the season. With prime field position, the Skyhawks would not capitalize as Cook was intercepted on the following play be Bradley Dewberry to end the drive.
Eastern Illinois would overcome the six-point deficit on the opening drive of the second quarter. Utilizing a two-quarterback system, the Panthers would start the drive with Green under center by completing back-to-back passes for a total of 23 yards. A quarterback keeper by Green later in the drive went for 14 yards to set up first and goal before turning the reigns over to Pilson. With a new quarterback in the fold, Pilson would hit Addison Bounds for a 10-yard touchdown in the corner of the endzone to take a 7-6 lead.
UT Martin would look to quickly take back the lead on the following drive. Facing third and short, Cook would find senior Kyle Kerrick for a 27-yard completion down the home sideline. With the ball near midfield, Fair would tally a pair of carries to notch a first down and move into enemy territory before a personal foul later in the drive moved the Skyhawks inside the redzone once again. The drive would nearly stall following a false start penalty but a 12-yard completion from Cook to Ben Axline on third-and-long would continue the drive and set up first and goal from the two. Needing just a few yards to reach the endzone, the Skyhawks would feed the ball to Jaimiee Bowe who broke the plain and scored his sixth touchdown of the season.
The Panthers would surge towards the endzone in the final minutes of the first half, highlighted by a 35-yard carry by Church to move the home squad inside the 10. Threatening with second and goal, Church would race towards the endzone where Prather jarred the ball loose for his second forced fumble as Hagens recovered the fumble to eliminate the scoring threat.
Facing a 13-7 deficit at the end of the first half, Eastern Illinois would look to cut into the margin on its second drive of the third quarter. Following a poor punt to set up prime field position, the Panthers would take over on the Skyhawks 36. The Panthers would tally a pair of first downs before seeing the drive stall at the nine, resulting in a 26-yard field goal by Nick Bruno to make it a three-point contest.
UT Martin would respond to the field goal with one of its own on the ensuing drive. The Skyhawks would go 34 yards on nine plays before junior Brett Arkelian tallied his first career field goal with a 20-yard attempt.
With the fourth quarter opening with just a six-point margin, the Skyhawks looked to find some breathing room by turning to their defense once again. After Eastern Illinois would start its drive on its 17, Skyhawk corner Williams-Hall tallied his second interception of the season before returning it 18-yards. With prime field position, the Skyhawks would turn to Fair who tallied four carries before finding the endzone for the second time in the contest to give the visitors a 23-10 lead.
Eastern Illinois would answer right back on the following drive. Four big plays of 13 yards or more would summarize the drive before Church broke free for a 27-yard rushing touchdown to make the score a one-possession game.
Needing to put the game away, the Skyhawks looked to milk the clock while finding some breathing room in the final minutes. The Skyhawks would be successful as the team strung together a nine-play, 47-yard drive which chewed up almost four minutes of clock before Mitch Mersman tallied a 42-yard field goal to stretch the margin.
With a bit of breathing room, UT Martin would turn to its defense to close out the contest. With Eastern Illinois turning the game over to its third quarterback of the afternoon Martin, the Skyhawks would rudely introduce him to the game. On his first pass of the following drive, Hagens would tally his second forced turnover of the contest by returning an interception 52 yards for a touchdown – the team’s sixth defensive touchdown of the season. On the next drive, the Skyhawks would completely put the game away as Este notched his third interception of the year to secure the victory.
UT Martin will look to close out the home portion of the schedule strong next week with a showdown against Southeast Missouri on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. The Skyhawks will honor the team’s 19 seniors prior to kickoff.