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Indians find Racers in the pits
When the schedule came out before the season, tonight's game between Murray State and Southeast Missouri State University looked like a possible showdown for the Ohio Valley Conference championship.
But a lot of things have changed since then regarding the fortunes of the OVC's top two preseason favorites.
While Southeast, picked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, has righted its ship after a slow start, Murray State -- picked second -- has already been all but eliminated from title contention.
The Indians (2-5, 2-1 OVC) and defending conference co-champion Racers (2-6, 1-3) square off at 6 p.m. at Houck Stadium.
"When you start the season as the defending OVC champs and you have high expectations, and then play the way we have the last two months, it's very tough," MSU coach Joe Pannunzio said. "You have to look at everything and evaluate what you're doing and see where you're going.
"I think we have some good players, but for whatever the reason, it just hasn't come together."
According to Pannunzio, there are obvious reasons for the Racers' struggles that have seen them lose six of seven games after a season-opening win.
First and foremost is the knee injury suffered by four-year starting quarterback Stewart Childress several games ago. Childress did come back to lead a comeback win over Jacksonville State for MSU's lone OVC victory to date, but he reinjured the knee in that contest, missed the last two games and is now likely out for the season.
Another factor, said Pannunzio, is that the Racers graduated all five starting offensive linemen from last year.
"Anybody that really understands sports can look at all the new people we had to bring in and all the things that had to fall into place to succeed and see those things just haven't worked out," Pannunzio said. "Then, we have to start our conference schedule at Tennessee Tech without our starting quarterback from the last three years, and to do without him for most of the snaps in our OVC games, that makes it tough."
The offensive problems have resulted in MSU ranking eighth in the nine-team OVC in yards gained with 277.9 per game and seventh in scoring with 15.9 points per contest.
"Right now, we're a fragile team on offense," Pannunzio said. "Then, you look at some of the reasons why we're fragile, and I guess the biggest reason I can point to is that we have a lot of young players out there right now. We're making a lot of youthful mistakes."
Pannunzio believes his quarterback, redshirt sophomore Stephen Hatchell, has plenty of ability but lacks much-needed experience. Hatchell has completed 54.2 percent of his passes (64 of 118) for 686 yards, with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
MSU does feature one of the OVC's premier receivers in Auburn transfer Deandre Green, who caught 69 passes last season for the Racers and has 41 receptions for a 14.4-yard average and four touchdowns this year. The Racers also have a pair of dangerous tailbacks in Ulysses Odoms and Ron Lane.
Defensively, the Racers have been strong, ranking second in the OVC by allowing just 295.2 yards per game, including a national-best 106.1 yards passing per contest.
"They're kind of like we were early in the year," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "It's one of those situations where they haven't put everything together. It's one of those years where things haven't gone their way.
"But they're still scary because they do have a lot of talent. Green is a great player, and that quarterback looks really good. Defensively, people really haven't been able to move the ball on them. If they don't turn it over, they've got a chance to beat just about anybody."
While the Racers have continued to struggle, the Indians have gotten well with two straight wins to vault themselves into the thick of the OVC race.
After struggling offensively -- just like the Racers -- through the early part of the season, the Indians have exploded with 102 points in their last three games behind the strong play of quarterback Jack Tomco.
"They're playing with a lot of confidence right now and Tomco has really gotten hot lately," Pannunzio said. "They're a team that, over the last two weeks, has gained a lot of confidence and they believe they can win every game. We're certainly up against it this week."
Although the Racers are slumping, they have beaten the Indians 10 straight times and lead the all-time series 32-4-1. Southeast's last victory over MSU was in 1992. The Indians would love for that to change tonight.
"This is my last chance to beat Murray State and it would be great for it to happen," said Southeast senior defensive end Ryan Roth, in his fifth year with the program. "We really need this game because of the conference race, and we really want this game because it's Murray State."