Indians look for winNo.1 in title pursuit

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University hopes to spoil Samford's Ohio Valley Conference debut tonight when the squads begin OVC play in Birmingham, Ala.

If the winless Indians don't, then coach Tim Billings figures they could be in big trouble.

"This is a critical game for us," Billings said. "We really need to win it."

What before the season looked to perhaps be an easy mark for the Indians (0-4) now has the potential to be a struggle against the improved Bulldogs (2-1), a first-year OVC member.

While Southeast, the OVC preseason favorite, slogged through its rugged non-conference schedule without a victory, Samford -- picked to finish eighth in the nine-team league -- already has won half as many games as it did all of last year. And the Bulldogs were impressive in their lone loss, 37-17 at Division I-A San Diego State last Saturday. The squads were tied 17-17 late in the third quarter.

"They're a much improved football team," Billings said. "We're going to have to play well to beat them. But the good thing is, if we play well, it should be a game we have a good opportunity to win."

Billings knows, however, that the Indians will have little chance at victory if they don't finally get their struggling offense going.

After averaging 34.7 points per game last year, Southeast has scored just 23 points -- including two touchdowns -- in four games. The Indians rank 119th nationally out of 121 Division I-AA teams in scoring with an average of 5.75 points per contest.

"The bottom line is we have to start scoring some points or it's going to be a long year," Billings said. "But I feel good about the way our offense moved the ball last game, and I really think we're close to breaking out. Hopefully this will be the week."

Southeast racked up a season-high 365 yards last Saturday against Southwest Missouri State but scored just one touchdown during a 17-10 home loss.

"When you get 365 yards, you should probably score about 28 points," Billings said. "We get close to the end zone but we just can't get in."

Samford hasn't had that problem this year. The Bulldogs lead the OVC in scoring with an average of 30.7 points per contest, although their per-game total offensive output of 320.3 yards is not much higher than Southeast's 302.5.

The Bulldogs have several dangerous offensive weapons, led by quarterback Ray Nelson and wide receiver Efrem Hill.

Nelson has completed 60.6 percent of his passes (57 of 94) for 583 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Hill leads the OVC with 24 receptions and has scored four touchdowns.

"They're really good on offense. They were good last year," said Billings, whose squad posted a 48-24 non-conference win over the Bulldogs last season in Cape Girardeau. "They spread you out, and they've got great skill people."

Samford also boasts one of the nation's premier kick returners in Cortland Finnegan, who earned All-American honors as a true freshman last season while finishing second nationally with an average of 32.2 yards per return and scoring two touchdowns. Finnegan averages 32.9 yards per return this year.

Samford coach Bill Gray agrees with Billings that the Bulldogs are improved from last season -- but he acknowledges they still have a long way to go.

"I think we're a better team, no question about that," Gray said. "We're more athletic and we're making fewer mistakes, but we'll find our more in the next few weeks.

"We played several OVC teams last year and we got pushed around. We know we have a long way to go, but I think we're getting better each week and that's all you can ask as a coach."

The way Southeast dominated Samford a year ago is still fresh in Gray's mind. He believes the Indians will get their act together any day now.

"They took us to the woodshed last year. They had a great showing against us," Gray said. "I have a lot of respect for their program, and I know they're looking forward to coming here and getting the new season started right.

"They have a lot of talent on offense, and they want to turn it around and click when they come to Birmingham. We know they can put points on the board -- they proved that last year -- and they've got a very good defense. It's going to be a big challenge for us."

Although somewhat improved, Samford's defense still appears to be its weak link as the Bulldogs allow 390.3 yards and 29.3 points per game. The Indians hope those numbers bode well for their slumping offense.

"Hopefully we'll click this week," said quarterback Jack Tomco, who will make his third start of the season tonight after Jeromy McDowell started the past two games. "It's our first conference game and we have to do what it takes to win."

mmishow@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 132

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