Skyhawks continue to gain respect, win first 2 OVC games

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tennesee-Martin is coming off its first winning season in 12 years.

Searching for the Ohio Valley Conference's most impressive team through the early part of the league schedule?

Perhaps look no further than Tennessee-Martin, the former longtime OVC doormat that is building on last year's breakthrough campaign.

In 2005, the Skyhawks snapped a string of 11 consecutive losing seasons by going 6-5 and compiling their best OVC record since 1995, a 4-4 mark.

Coach Matt Griffin, the architect of the big turnaround -- Tennessee-Martin went winless in OVC play from 1997 through 2002 and posted just one league victory in both 2003 and 2004 -- left after last season to take over the Murray State program.

But first-year coach Jason Simpson and the Skyhawks haven't missed a beat.

Tennessee-Martin, which has won five straight games after an opening loss at Division I-A Ohio, improved to 2-0 in OVC play last week by beating host Tennessee Tech 35-16.

It was the Skyhawks' first OVC road win since 1996, and it came against a Tennessee Tech squad that earlier shocked preseason league favorite Eastern Kentucky.

The Skyhawks, who opened their conference schedule with a 24-14 triumph over perennial power Jacksonville State, broke into the national rankings last week for the first time as a Division I-AA program. They moved up five spots this week to No. 17.

Simpson said during Tuesday's weekly OVC coaches teleconference that he believed the Skyhawks could continue to build on what they started before he arrived in Martin.

"I knew when we got here in the spring that we had an opportunity to have a good football team. There was some talent here," Simpson said. "We've added probably five, six pieces to the puzzle on offense, three, four pieces on defense.

"Combined with we are a hungry football team ... there were some challenges, but no, I'm not going to say we're surprised where we are."

Simpson emphasized that the Skyhawks have been able to remain grounded despite all the early success.

"We've got 16 seniors, so we have a fairly mature football team," Simpson said. "We're 5-1, but we haven't accomplished a winning season; we're still only two games into the OVC season.

"We've set ourselves up ... but we haven't accomplished anything yet."

Tennessee-Martin got a huge performance against Tennessee Tech (2-4, 2-1) from junior tailback Donald Chapman, who had been nursing a sore ankle -- and according to Simpson a sour attitude -- through the early part of the schedule.

Chapman, a preseason All-American, rushed for 214 yards on 27 carries as the Skyhawks piled up 289 yards on the ground. The previous week, Chapman had 155 yards against Austin Peay.

"Early in the year we were just not very pleased with his practice performance. That moreso than the ankle injury is what was limiting his playing time," Simpson said. "I've been real proud with Donald the last couple of weeks, buying into the work ethic we preach around here."

Tennessee-Martin is tied for the OVC lead with defending champion Eastern Illinois (3-3, 2-0).

The 16th-ranked Panthers limited visiting Southeast Missouri State (3-2, 1-2) to just 101 yards of total offense during a 21-0 victory.

"I was excited about the performance of the defense," Eastern Illinois assistant head coach Mark Hutson said. "It was a complete game all around for us, particularly from the defensive side."

Jacksonville State (3-2, 3-1), which captured OVC titles in 2003 and 2004, remained in the title chase by hammering visiting Murray State 49-17.

Preseason OVC favorite Eastern Kentucky finally got untracked as the Colonels (2-4, 1-2) notched their first conference win, rolling past host Samford 31-12.

"We finally got better production out of our offense. We manufactured big plays, which is what had been missing from our offense," Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope said. "It gave our team a spark, certainly gave us some energy."

Besides Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Illinois, the OVC's only other team without a loss in conference play is Tennessee State (2-3, 1-0), although the Tigers' lone league game was against Murray State (1-5, 0-3).

In addition to the Racers, the only other squad without an OVC victory is Samford (2-4, 0-3).

Players of the week

Eastern Kentucky junior quarterback Josh Greco is the OVC offensive player of the week. He completed 18 of 28 passes for a season-high 323 yards against Samford, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The 323 yards are a season high in the OVC this year.

Eastern Illinois senior linebacker Lucius Seymour earned the defensive player of the week award. He had 11 tackles, a sack and an interception as the Panthers dealt Southeast Missouri its first shutout loss since 2001.

Jacksonville State sophomore punter Zach Walden and Eastern Illinois junior quarterback Cole Stinson nabbed specialist and newcomer honors, respectively.

Walden averaged a a career-best 48.5 yards on six punts against Murray State.

Stinson, a transfer from Ball State, made the most of his first Eastern Illinois start. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Southeast Missouri.

This week's games

Three conference matchups and two games at Division I-A opponents -- both from the Southeastern Conference -- highlight this week's schedule.

An especially interesting contest within the league pits Eastern Illinois at Eastern Kentucky.

Also, Murray State hosts Samford and Tennessee State entertains Tennessee Tech.

Outside the conference, Southeast Missouri visits 17th-ranked Arkansas -- the programs have met just once previously, a 12-0 Arkansas win in 1906 -- and Jacksonville State travels to Mississippi State.

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