Cellar teams find opening-week treat with rare victories

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Ohio Valley Conference football is off to a strong start after league teams went 6-3 in last week's openers -- including victories from a pair of squads who are already halfway to matching their victory totals from all of 2002.

Tennessee State eased past South Carolina State 37-20, and Tennessee-Martin slipped past Austin Peay 21-20. While a 1-0 record may be no cause for major celebration, it lends itself to minor elation when a team is coming off a 2-10 season, as both the Tigers and Skyhawks are.

That's why the Tennessee State and Tennessee-Martin coaches expressed plenty of satisfaction during Tuesday's weekly OVC teleconference.

"It feels good to get off to a 1-0 start," Tennessee State's James Reese said. "We definitely have some things we have to work on to improve, but it definitely feels good right now."

Said Tennessee-Martin's Matt Griffin, in his first season as a college head coach, "It's great for our kids, it's great for our program, it's a great way to start out. I think it definitely is a confidence boost."

The other first-week OVC winners were Eastern Illinois (27-0 over California of Pennsylvania); Murray State (34-0 over Valparaiso); Jacksonville State (9-3 over Alabama A&M); and Samford (31-23 over Chattanooga).

Losing their openers were Southeast Missouri State (17-3 to Ohio); Eastern Kentucky (63-13 to Bowling Green); and Tennessee Tech (40-10 to Memphis).

There was a prevailing theme among the results -- the winners all beat either fellow Division I-AA teams or lower-division squads, while the losers all went down to Division I-A opponents.

Eastern Illinois and Murray State, who shared last year's OVC title but have not been known for defense in recent years, both picked up rare shutouts against overmatched foes.

"Our defense played extremely well, but they weren't an offensive power by any means," said Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo of Division II California (Pa.).

Said Murray State coach Joe Pannunzio, whose opponent, Valparaiso, was a non-scholarship Division I-AA team, "It looks like we're a little bit improved on defense from a year ago, but we'll find out a lot more this week when we play Kentucky."

While Tennessee-Martin gave Griffin a win in his debut as a college head coach, the OVC's other first-year boss -- Eastern Kentucky's Danny Hope -- suffered a harsher result when I-A Bowling Green throttled the Colonels by 50 points.

"I was disappointed in the lopsided score, but I didn't think it indicated the way we prepared for the game," Hope said. "I thought our guys played hard, but we had a lot of mistakes.

"I think it was an eye opener for our football team as far as the level of competition. We had way too many errors against a great football team."

The two first-year OVC members -- Alabama schools Jacksonville State and Samford -- both opened with victories.

This week's schedule

Just seven games on are tap this week as Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State both have open dates.

Samford hosts West Alabama in a Thursday game. Saturday contests feature Southern Illinois at Southeast Missouri, Appalachian State at Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State at Alabama A&M, Tennessee Tech at Northern Illinois, Murray State at Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin at Arkansas State.

Tennessee Tech, Murray State and Tennessee-Martin all face Division I-A teams, with Northern Illinois appearing particularly salty after upsetting then-15th-ranked Maryland in its opener.

Making the next level

The OVC's top two offensive players from last season both have found homes on National Football League rosters.

Quarterback Tony Romo of Eastern Illinois, who won the league's offensive player of the year award the past three seasons, made the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent.

Wide receiver Willie Ponder of Southeast Missouri, a consensus All-American last season, made the New York Giants after being drafted in the sixth round.

mmishow@semissourian.com

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