Surprising Tigers sit atop standings after comeback

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Other than perennial bottom feeder Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee State and Samford were considered the least likely teams to challenge for the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

But, even though there is still plenty of football to be played, Tennessee State and Samford are both currently at or near the top of the OVC standings.

Tennessee State, picked seventh out of nine teams in the OVC's preseason coaches' poll, is in first place following Saturday's come-from-behind 27-23 win at Tennessee Tech.

The Tigers, after going 2-10 and winning just one conference game last year, improved to 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the league. They rallied from a 23-9 halftime deficit, scoring 15 points in the final six minutes, and held the OVC's top offensive unit to 112 yards, including just two yards in the second half.

Although the Tigers on paper still have their toughest conference games remaining, they lead the league in total offense and defense, with averages of 383.8 and 261.5 yards per game.

"We thought we would be a pretty decent football team," Tennessee State coach James Reese said during Tuesday's weekly OVC teleconference. "It's still early and we still have a lot of games to be played, but right now the bonus is our guys are playing hard and playing to the best of their abilities."

First-year OVC program Samford, meanwhile, was picked eighth in the preseason poll after going 4-7 last year. But the Bulldogs improved to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the league with a surprisingly easy 35-6 home win over Murray State, the preseason No. 2 selection and defending co-champion.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but we are excited," Samford coach Bill Gray said. "Any time you're in a situation where you're an underdog going in, there's not a lot of pressure on you and that's the way we've been playing.

"It is a long way to go, but we're just having fun with it."

The Bulldogs are in a three-way tie for second place at 2-1, along with Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State, the OVC's other new member.

EIU troubles continue

Eastern Illinois, which has won or shared the past two OVC titles and earned three consecutive Division I-AA playoff berths, saw its troubles continue Saturday with a 41-0 loss to visiting Eastern Kentucky. It marked the first time the Panthers have been shut out at home since 1973.

The Panthers fell to 1-5 overall and 0-2 in the league with their fifth consecutive setback. Their biggest problem has been a floundering offense that is averaging just 10.8 points and 256.2 yards per game, both figures ranking last in the conference and among the worst in the nation.

Eastern Illinois has scored just 65 points all season -- and 27 of those came during a season-opening 27-0 win over Division II California (Pa.).

"I think the word is regression. We regressed badly last week," Panthers coach Bob Spoo said. "You try to get your team to improve every week, but we weren't even competitive. We took a good shellacking from those guys."

Quarterbacks sidelined

Tennessee Tech, which looked like one of the OVC's top contenders a few weeks ago, and Murray State both saw their title hopes take a major blow recently with knee injuries to star quarterbacks.

Tennessee Tech's Robert Craft, who had been leading the league in passing, went down in the second quarter two weeks ago during a stunning loss to Tennessee-Martin. He did not play against Tennessee State and is out for the rest of the season.

Murray State's Stewart Childress, a four-year starter, was hurt three weeks ago, but he came off the bench a week later to lead a comeback overtime win over Jacksonville State. However, Childress reinjured the knee during a celebration after the winning touchdown and he did not play against Samford. He also could miss the rest of the year.

"I think he's done. It would surprise me if he comes back," Murray State coach Joe Pannunzio said.

Extra points

  • Eastern Kentucky sophomore linebacker Jerome Jones was chosen Division I-AA's national defensive player of the week by The Sports Network.

    Jones had nine tackles, including two for loss, a pass breakup, an interception and a 74-yard fumble return for a touchdown during the rout of Eastern Illinois.

    Jacksonville State senior running back Kory Chapman, the OVC Offensive Player of the Week, set a school record with 298 yards rushing during Saturday's 34-24 win over Tennessee-Martin. The 298 yards are the second-most for a game in Division I-AA this season.

    Tennessee-Martin sophomore quarterback Brady Wahlberg set school records with 44 completions and 65 attempts against Jacksonville State. He passed for 369 yards.

    Tennessee State junior running back Charles Anthony leads the OVC and is fifth nationally in rushing with an average of 143.5 yards per game.

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