CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – Nationally ranked No. 23 University of Tennessee at Martin football team wasted little time in the Ohio Valley Conference opener before showing Southeast Missouri that their rank was no fluke, scoring on the opening drive en route to the 17-7 victory.
After UT Martin jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead, it was the Skyhawk defense that secured the victory. Defensively, the Skyhawks continued a pair of superlatives, holding their third consecutive Football Championship Subdivision opponent scoreless in the first half. The Skyhawks have outscored their FCS opponents Chattanooga (7-0), Central Arkansas (14-0) and Southeast Missouri (17-0) 38-0 in the first half this season.
On top of the Skyhawks’ first half dominance, UT Martin continued their streak of never trailing against an FCS opponent, never relinquishing the lead after scoring on the opening drive of tonight’s matchup.
UT Martin won the rushing battle of the night, accumulating 238 net rushing yards, led by senior DJ McNeil. McNeil lead all Skyhawks by tallying a career-best 148 yards on 27 carries. Transfer Abou Toure trailed with 10 carries, good for 56 yards on the ground. Redshirt freshman Najee Ray got in on the action, rushing three times, including a nine-yard touchdown.
Dylan Favre earned the start at quarterback, going 11-16 for 118 yards with a touchdown. Jarod Neal saw action but tossed one interception.
Dylan Davis and Jeremy Butler each led the team with three receptions each, tallying 43 and 21 yards respectively. Corey Jordan wrangled two receptions, including a 35-yard touchdown from Favre on the opening drive.
Defensively, Ben Johnson led the way with a season-best 12 total tacks, including one tackle for loss and pass breakup. Thad Williams tallied seven tackles while classmate J’Vontez Blackmon tallied six tackles and two pass breakups. Tony Bell tallied six tackles while recovering one fumble. DJ Roberts was credited for three total tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
“I’m very proud of our defensive effort, only allowing seven points, as that kind of effort will win you most games,” said UT Martin head football coach Jason Simpson. “Offensively, I’m proud that we were able to string together two 15-play drives on the night.”
“There are a lot of seniors on our defensive unit,” Simpson continued. “We may not always throw up a shutout or give up less than 20 points, but we play hard and you’ve got to line up against us to beat us. We’re not going to let you nickel and dime us to death.”
For Southeast Missouri, Kyle Snyder earned the start under center, passing 71 yards, while adding 40 yards on eight carries. Scott Lathrop passed for 71 yards, while adding 10 carries for 73 yards. Ron Coleman was responsible for the Redhawks lone touchdown, rushing for 40 yards on 12 carries.
The Skyhawks wasted little time making their presence known in the ball game, running a seamless offensive attack to get onto the board in the game’s opening three minutes of the game.
Senior running back DJ McNeil rambled off a pair of first downs to open the drive, tallying runs of 13 and 12 yards consecutively. Favre hit Dylan Davis for a 13-yard connection, picking up the Skyhawks third consecutive first down of the drive. Favre soon connected for first score of the game, hitting Jordan for a 35-yard touchdown across the middle to put the Skyhawks on the board. Jackson Redditt added the extra point giving UT Martin the early 7-0 advantage. The Skyhawks drive took six plays, spanning 78 yards and taking 2:19 minutes.
UT Martin continued their offensive pace on their third drive, increasing their lead to open the second quarter. The Skyhawks continued to pound the ball on the ground, seeing four different player tally rushing attempts. McNeil pounded seven carries down the field before Ray broke the final would-be tackle for a nine yard scamper to the endzone, Ray’s first career touchdown. Redditt added the extra point to give the Skyhawks the 14-0 lead. The 15-play drive took 5:18 minutes, encompassing 87 yards.
The Skyhawks next possession looked promising, moving the ball quickly down the field. Jarod Neal checked into the game at quarterback, marking the Skyhawks into enemy territory. The drive was suddenly halted when Neal’s pass was picked off by the Southeast Missouri defender Reggie Jennings.
After yet another Redhawk three-and-out, the Skyhawks began their fifth drive of the game on their own 45 yard line. After a barrage of rushing attempts, the Skyhawks pulled within scoring position to set up the place kicker. Redditt connected for his first field goal attempt of the night, a 22-yard attempt to push the Skyhawk lead out to 17-0 right before half.
The first half went to the visitors as the Skyhawks dominated nearly every statistical category. UT Martin won the battle of the ground game, tallying 182 rushing yards compared to the Redhawks 54. The Skyhawks tallied 270 yards of total offense while the defense allowed just 92 yards to Southeast Missouri.
UT Martin won the battle of nearly every statistical category in the first half, tallying 270 total yards of offense while the defense allowed just 92 yards to the Redhawks.
The third quarter was a defensive battle, as both defenses made key plays to force turnovers and limiting either team a scoring opportunity. The Skyhawks forced their first turnover of the night at the 3:07 mark as Roberts sacked Snyder, forcing the ball loose which Bell quickly recovered giving the Skyhawks possession.
On the ensuing drive, McNeil fumbled the second play of the drive, giving the ball right back to the Redhawk offense as John Popovich recovered Cantrell Andrews’s forced fumble.
The Skyhawks almost returned the favor yet again on the next drive as Bell hit the Redhawk quarterback Snyder on an option, squirting the ball back for a 13-yard loss. The defense built upon the botched play, as senior defensive back Kevin Barfield looked to get a hand on Southeast Missouri’s 48-yard field goal attempt by Alex Knight to eliminate the scoring threat.
The Redhawks got on the board at the 6:17 mark of the fourth quarter to bring Southeast Missouri within two scores. After Southeast Missouri made a change at quarterback, moving Lathrop into the game, the Redhawk offense began to quickly move the ball downfield. Lathrop came into the game, providing a mobile option at the position, scrambling for 39 yards on the 15-play drive. Lathrop scrambled for a game-long 24-yard carry before Ron Coleman punched the Redhawks lone touchdown of the night on a two-yard rush up the gut. Ryan McCrum’s extra-point opportunity was good, narrowing the Skyhawks lead to 17-7 with 6:17 to play.
UT Martin and Southeast Missouri would exchange drives as the minutes dwindled, but a tackle by Johnson on fourth-and-five sealed the Skyhawks victory.
UT Martin returns to action next Saturday, Oct. 5, when it returns home to the friendly confines of Hardy M. Graham Stadium in a homecoming matchup against Jacksonville State. Kickoff against the Gamecocks is set for 2 p.m.