In a battle of the conference’s top two defenses, it was the Tigers making a statement for their opponent next weekend as they defeated UT Martin 29-15. With 16 points on the board thanks to the other side of the ball, the second edition of the OVC game of the year is still in on.
TSU would get a huge performance out of their defense limiting the OVC’s leading rusher to just 54 yards on 17 carries. The defense would get two scores by way of a block field goal and a pick-six. The Tigers controlled the trenches for the entire game keeping starting quarter Jarod Neal under duress when he stayed in the pocket. With the interception it was the team’s 21st straight game with a takeaway.
The Tigers offense did just what was necessary for the victory. Starting quarterback Ronald Butler got all the reps as Michael German didn’t make the three hour trip to Martin after suffering a shoulder injury against Southeast Missouri. Butler finished 11 of 19 for 160 yards and a touchdown. The conference’s second leading rusher, Tim Broughton was limited to just 86 yards on 22 carries.
The Skyhawks issues came primarily from penalties. UT Martin had 19 penalties for 146 yards for the game, including three straight fourth down conversations ruined by the referee’s yellow flag in the first half.
Neal got the start after Dylan Favre didn’t dress due to a knee injury. Neal’s favorite target was Jeremy Butler who was the brightest spot for the Skyhawks. Butler had 10 catches for 129 yards a touchdown but even he had a rough game. Fielding punts for the first time all season, Butler had two fumbles, and lost one that ended momentum that the Skyhawks had gained. Neal was 24 of 45 for 242 yards and a touchdown and interception.
Both teams came out with strong defense and it wasn’t until Butler connected with Lavatiae Kelly midway through the first quarter that we saw a first down in the game. After literally no offense the scoring opened as Butler found Ryan Mitchell on the right side of the field for a 61 yard touchdown to grab the early 7-0 lead. The Skyhawks looked like the would respond with a scoring drive of their own but McNeil would be stripped by linebacker Nick Thrasher ending the drive for UTM.
The Skyhawks would gain some momentum with punter James Scatterfield running to the left for a first down. The drive would stall out after an unsportsmanlike penalty by UT Martin. On a 40 yard UTM field goal attempt, the Tigers would get a block by Anthony Bass and it would be taken back to the house by De’an Saunders for a 54 yard touchdown. Immediately following the play, Neal would be intercepted by Daniel Fitzpatrick who took it 20 yards for another touchdown to make it 21-0. It was Fitzpatrick’s fifth of the season and his fourth in the last three games. The offensive troubles would continue for UTM as McNeil would be hung out to dry in the endzone and give up a safety.
The Skyhawks would show some life and make a drive into the TSU red zone before scoreboard issues would cost the home side points. With the referees keeping time on the field the Skyhawks would not be able to get their field goal team in to the field after a dump pass on third down.
After a three and out by Tennessee State to open the second half, the Skyhawks found success through the air as Neal found Jeremy Butler for an 11 yard touchdown to make it 23-7. The Skyhawk defense would gain momentum forcing two huge three and outs after Jeremy Butler fumbled a punt return.The Tigers would score on the second three and out after Jamin Godfrey made a 44 yard field goal.
UTM would try to rebound and looked like it would with a fourth down conversation from midfield but Neal’s offensive line would allow back-to-back sacks to end the drive. As the game came to a close, UTM would get a touchdown from Trent Garland to bring the deficit to 14.
UT Martin is now with backs against the wall with two conferece losses at home. Tennessee State with the win now heads for a showdown with defending champion Eastern Illinois for homecoming.