Improved Skyhawks welcome a shot at Southeast

Saturday, November 1, 2003

As a competitor, Matt Griffin's first Tennessee-Martin football team is not as improved as he would like.

But as a realist in the early stages of trying to turn around one of the nation's worst NCAA Division I-AA programs, Griffin appreciates the progress the Skyhawks have made.

The Skyhawks (2-7, 1-4 Ohio Valley Conference) will put that progress on display today when they host Southeast Missouri State University (2-6, 2-2).

"Sure, I'm encouraged, but it's hard to be too encouraged when you're 2-7," said Griffin. "But I am pleased with the kids. Their effort has been outstanding. But we're not satisfied at all, and I don't want our kids to be, because losing is losing."

The Skyhawks entered the season on a 42-game OVC losing streak since their last victory Nov. 2, 1996, when they beat Southeast 7-6 in Cape Girardeau.

But earlier this year, after losing their OVC opener, the Skyhawks broke through by rallying from 16 points down to stun Tennessee Tech 30-23 in overtime. The win ended a 43-game league losing skid and a 64-game losing streak against Division I-A or I-AA scholarship programs.

Since beating Tennessee Tech, the Skyhawks have lost three straight OVC games, but they have been more competitive than in the past -- something not lost on Southeast coach Tim Billings, whose squad is in the running for its first OVC title.

"They've really improved this year. They're just a much better football team," Billings said. "They're not a team you can take lightly."

Particularly, said Billings, since the Indians did not exactly roll over the Skyhawks in his first three seasons at Southeast.

"Right now they scare me to death, the way we're playing," Billings said. "We struggle with Martin every year. The only reason we've beaten them is we've outscored them, and I don't know if we can do that this year."

The Indians appeared to have their offensive problems from early in the season worked out -- until they struggled during last Saturday's 27-24 home loss to Murray State.

Toward that end, Billings plans to give quarterback Andrew Goodenough -- who replaced starter Jack Tomco late against Murray State -- significant playing time today, although he has not announced a starter.

Last year, Tomco set school single-game records against Tennessee-Martin by throwing for 429 yards and five touchdowns during a 50-35 win. But Billings has not been all that happy with Tomco's play much of the season -- even though he has thrown for 1,434 yards while completing 56.4 percent of his passes -- and he is intrigued by the talents of Arizona State transfer Goodenough.

A year ago, Goodenough saw significant playing time during Arizona State's opener against Nebraska, completing four of eight passes for 52 yards. But the former junior-college All-American missed the rest of the year with an injury and transferred to Southeast.

"Andrew is a great athlete who has had success everywhere he has been, and we're going to see how he responds," Billings said. "Hopefully he will give us a spark offensively."

UTM has no quarterback issues. Sophomore Brady Wahlberg has had an impressive season despite missing four games due to injury, completing a conference-best 68.7 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards and seven interceptions. He has three receivers with at least 42 catches.

"They spread you out, and their quarterback is really playing well," Billings said.

While potent offensively, the Skyhawks struggle on defense and allow an OVC-worst 37.4 points and 444.8 yards per game. That could be a welcome relief for Southeast's up-and-down offense -- but Billings believes if the Indians' don't start performing better offensively, it won't matter what kind of defense they face.

"The key for us is to execute offensively," Billings said. "If we do, then we have a chance to be a good football team."

mmishow@semissourian.com

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