Unpredictable OVC holds out hope for Southeast
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Three of the top four teams in preseason poll were upended in the opening week of conference play.
By Marty Mishow ~ Southeast Missourian
In most seasons, Southeast Missouri State University coach Tim Billings figures losing the Ohio Valley Conference opener at supposed lightweight Samford would severely damage the Indians' OVC title hopes.
But the way the first weekend of conference play went, Billings believes the OVC door is still wide open for the struggling Indians, who dropped to 0-5 after Saturday's stunning 41-31 defeat.
Not only did preseason favorite Southeast fall to a team picked eighth in the nine-team league, preseason No. 2 Murray State was hammered at Tennessee Tech 49-24 and preseason No. 4 Eastern Kentucky was routed at Jacksonville State 49-14. Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State tied for fifth in the preseason coaches' poll.
"The reality is that the conference is still up for grabs," Billings said at his weekly media conference Monday morning. "I told our kids the only way we can lose the conference championship right now is to lose another game or to have Samford win out, and I don't think they'll win out.
"It's been a weird year. We're totally in the conference race. Anybody in the conference can still win it."
Of course, Billings knows the Indians won't have a chance at the OVC title if they don't get their act together soon. There are seven conference games left, starting with Saturday's 11:30 a.m. homecoming affair against Eastern Illinois (1-3), which will be playing its league opener.
Eastern Illinois won or shared the past two OVC titles but the Panthers have struggled so far this year, like most of the conference.
"We're not playing good as a football team," Billings said. "We've got good players, but we haven't been a good football team."
Billings hopes the Indians' performance in the latter part of the Samford game will carry over this week. After falling behind 35-10 early in the second half, Southeast played probably the best it has all year before coming up short.
"I was really disappointed with the way we played the first half and the first drive of the second half," Billings said. "Then we got excited to play for the first time all year.
"For that quarter and a half we were a football team. Whether that carries over to this week, I don't know."
Placekicker Derek Kutz, who has connected on four of six field-goal attempts this year, said the Indians believe they still have what it takes to win the OVC.
"Coach told us after the game that the way we played the last quarter and a half is the way we have to play all the time," Kutz said. "We still think we can beat anybody in the conference."
Offense perks up
Southeast had by far its best offensive showing of the season against Samford as the Indians piled up 451 yards and 31 points. They had scored just 23 points in their first four games combined and had averaged barely 300 yards a game.
Quarterback Jack Tomco, who had been shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, had his best performance of the season, completing 23 of 32 passes for 291 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. He figures to remain the starter for the foreseeable future.
Converted wide receiver Jamel Oliver also figures to remain at tailback after rushing for 98 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in his backfield debut. His 67-yard run was Southeast's longest play from scrimmage this year.
"I felt pretty comfortable," said Oliver, who came to Southeast as a running back last year before moving to receiver. "I want to do whatever's best for the team."
Wide receiver Anthony Gilliam, a TCU transfer who hadn't played in nearly two years prior to this season, had his best performance at Southeast by catching eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
"Anthony is really coming on," Billings said.
Tight end Ray Goodson from Jackson High School caught six more passes as he increased his team lead to 25, ahead of Chris NesSmith (21), Oliver (17) and Gilliam (16).
"Ray is having a great year," Billings said.
Tailback David Taufoou saw limited action Saturday after suffering a knee injury two weeks ago during his 100-yard game against Southwest Missouri. He is questionable for Eastern Illinois.
Starting defensive backs Mike Miller and Marco Tipton, who have not played for several weeks, remain out indefinitely with knee injuries. Billings said their absences particularly showed up against Samford's pass-oriented offense.
"This is the first team that really spread us out and threw the football," he said. "They really exposed us."
Quarterback Jeromy McDowell, who had started the two games prior to Samford, is also banged up and will be examined, although Billings did not disclose the injury. When Tomco suffered a minor hand injury late against Samford, Andrew Goodenough came on instead of McDowell and completed three of four passes. Tomco should be fine this week.
***Two freshmen defensive linemen had strong games against Samford.
Tackle Jared Odom, a redshirt, was credited with seven tackles, including Southeast's first quarterback sack of the season.
End Edgar Jones, a true freshman, had six tackles.