CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - In a matchup between in-state Football Championship Subdivision heavyweights, the University of Tennessee at Martin prevailed tonight, downing No. 24 Chattanooga by a 31-21 margin in the season-opener at Finley Stadium.
After UT Martin held a 7-0 halftime lead, the contest projected to be a battle of the defenses. However, the Skyhawk rushing attack proved to be the difference this evening - as UT Martin piled up 289 yards on the ground, the most rushing yards against a Division-I squad since Oct. 9, 2008 against Eastern Illinois (a span of 50 games).
DJ McNeil led the way for UT Martin, tallying a career-best 134 yards on 26 carries. The redshirt senior also passed the 1,000 career yard rushing mark this evening, earning his place in history in the third quarter. Trent Garland also eclipsed the 100-yard mark tonight, accumulating 116 yards on just eight carries. The duo also rushed for a touchdown apiece.
Jarod Neal and Dylan Favre split time at quarterback tonight. Neal earned the start, going 10-for-15 for 79 yards with an interception. Favre went 9-for-12 for 83 yards and a touchdown, while adding 37 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Jeremy Butler tallied game-highs of 10 receptions and 91 yards this evening, while Chris Thompson caught four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, Tony Bell and Thad Williams led the way with eight tackles apiece for UT Martin. J'Vontez Blackmon added six stops and a big interception for the Skyhawks, who limited Chattanooga to 368 yards of total offense.
"I was proud of our defense - I felt like we controlled the game from the beginning," said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson, who served as the offensive coordinator at Chattanooga before accepting the UT Martin head coaching job in 2006. "If you would have told me we would have three big turnovers and 10 penalties, I would have never believed we would have won. I have to attribute the solid play to our upperclassmen - they held it together."
For Chattanooga, Jacob Huesman passed for 226 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 22 carries for 90 yards. Faysal Shafaat (four catches, 45 yards) was responsible for two touchdown catches while Marquis Green (five catches, 73 yards) added a touchdown catch.
In a sign of things to come, the UT Martin defense started their season with a three-and-out, limiting the Mocs' offense to two short rushes and an incomplete pass.
If there were any signs of nerves in his first career start, Neal didn't show it. He completed his first seven passes on the offense's first drive, five of which went to Butler. McNeil also accounted for 35 rushing yards on the first drive before Chattanooga forced and recovered a fumble to take over at its own 23-yard line.
The Skyhawk defense held their own on their next two drives, including a sack by Ryan Isom and DJ Roberts to put an end to Chattanooga's third drive.
Favre then made his Skyhawk debut with 36 seconds left in the first quarter, finding Butler for a completion on his first attempt. However, the first quarter came to a close with no score.
Chattanooga's next drive stalled, thanks to a tackle for loss by Roberts and quarterback hurry by Bobby Ellis. The UT Martin defense held once again on its next two drives before breaking through to create the game's first score.
On third-and-five from the Chattanooga 28-yard line, Blackmon stepped in front of a Huesman pass for an interception. It was the third interception in 12 career games at UT Martin for the senior from Bryam, Miss.
After a 24-yard return and a facemask penalty put the ball on the Chattanooga 5-yard line, McNeil strolled in for a two-yard touchdown at the 3:56 mark. Jackson Redditt added the PAT to give the Skyhawks a 7-0 advantage.
On the Mocs' next drive, UT Martin kept the shutout intact with two big sacks - one by Keith Jones and one by Roberts/James Ratliff to close out the half. It was the first time since Sept. 13, 2012 against Southeastern Louisiana that the Skyhawks had carried a shutout into halftime.
Both squads could not put points on the scoreboard in their first possessions of the second half, but Favre led UT Martin on a lengthy scoring drive during the waning moments of the third quarter. The Skyhawks used a balanced rushing attack - gaining 64 yards on the ground - during a 12-play, 89-yard drive that spanned 4:38. Garland boasted rushes of 15 and 12 yards on the drive, setting up Favre for a 13-yard touchdown scamper on third-and-six. Redditt added the PAT to give UT Martin a 14-0 cushion.
Chattanooga answered quickly, putting together a 75-yard scoring drive on four plays that spanned 1:16 to pull within one score at 14-7.
The Skyhawk offense wasted no time marching back down the field, putting together a nine-play, 83-yard scoring drive that spanned 2:58. Garland continued his hot stretch with two carries for 30 yards on the drive, but it was Thompson who UT Martin prominently featured on the drive. Favre found Thompson for a crucial 11-yard gain on third-and-four from the Skyhawk 23-yard line. He also added another 11-yard reception before snagging a 13-yard touchdown catch with 12:56 left to play in the contest. Redditt split the uprights for a PAT that resulted in a 21-7 UT Martin lead.
Less than two minutes later, Chattanooga came right back with a touchdown, scoring on a 29-yard screen pass on an all-out Skyhawk blitz to make the score 21-14 with 7:16 to go.
However, Corey Jordan made sure the momentum swung back in UT Martin's favor - taking the ensuing kickoff back 68 yards to the Chattanooga 31-yard line. Seven plays later, Redditt booted a clutch 29-yard field goal from the left hash to extend the Skyhawk lead back out to 24-14 with 4:35 remaining.
The Skyhawks then essentially sealed the victory with another strong defensive stand. UT Martin forced four incomplete passes when the Mocs took over with 4:35 to go. Johnson and Taino Fears-Perez each had pass breakups on the final two plays of the drive.
Garland followed with a 33-yard touchdown run on third-and-eight to push the UT Martin advantage out to 31-14 with 2:35 left to play.
Chattanooga answered with a 13-yard touchdown pass, using just 1:02 in the process. On the ensuing onside kick attempt, Jake Overbey cleanly received the ball to put the finishing touches on the Skyhawk victory.
UT Martin returns to action next Saturday, Sept. 7, when it makes the 1,820 mile trek to take on Boise State. Kickoff against the No. 19 Football Bowl Subdivision squad is set for 2 p.m. CST.
Photo courtesy of Frank Mattia