Murray wins battle of youth

Sunday, October 21, 2007

On this, perhaps the best day for the Murray State football program since 2004, Racers coach Matt Griffin wasn't about to get into any discussions about measuring sticks or landmark victories.

His focus, he said, is on what's next -- in the short term.

Whether what comes next for Murray State is any better than the future at Southeast Missouri State should be interesting to observe in the next few years.

Griffin is in his second season at Murray State, beginning his tenure in December 2005, about 10 days before Tony Samuel was hired to rebuild the Redhawks.

That makes the duo comparable in the progress of their programs.

Griffin notched a victory Saturday in that step toward progress -- a 31-17 win at Houck Stadium.

Murray State, which hasn't been better than any Ohio Valley Conference team since 2004, was better than Southeast Misouri State on Saturday.

The only celebrating at Southeast's homecoming was being done by the Racers, and they really weren't celebrating all that much.

"I think something that we stressed for them was the task at hand, short-term focus," Griffin said. "This is the now. Play the next one, play the next one."

That's not an altogether easy task when the last one was a loss. And the one before that. And the one before that.

In OVC play, Murray State had lost 18 straight games since the 6-2 league mark in 2004. That helped create the job vacancy after Joe Pannunzio's 2-9 season in 2005.

Southeast had the same mark that season in Tim Billings' final season, but Southeast never has had the same kind of success as Murray, which won an OVC title as recently as 2002 and two other league championships since Southeast joined the Division I-AA ranks in 1991.

While Griffin began directly rebuilding with youngsters -- he had 58 freshmen and sophomores last year and has 72 of them this year -- Samuel inherited a team that was older.

With 26 seniors last year, Southeast was 4-7 overall, 2-6 in the OVC.

Murray State was 2-9 with an 0-8 league mark that followed an 0-7 league mark the year before.

They opened this year with three conference losses as well.

"We have not spent a lot of time talking about," Griffin said. "I don't think I've personally mentioned it one time to our kids maybe once this year. I think it's a negative, and I don't like to highlight negatives, and we're just going to play the next play."

Samuel also operates with the same even keel, but his team this year had just enough older talent to merit some expectations of improvement this season.

However, in all fairness, the Redhawks opened Saturday's game with just five seniors starting -- compared to three for Murray State -- with two on defense and three on offense.

And they ended the day as the only team without an OVC victory this season.

Griffin wasn't reading much into the meeting of the league's basement dwellars as a status report for their rebuilding jobs.

"I think the third year is when you really start making things," he said.

"They're young," he added. "The thing he and I are battling right now is the youth of our teams. You just have to keep building. You have to be patient."

The Redhawks have had their hiccups. The two-quarterback system that started the year has -- due in part to injuries -- not given a good read on which of the four quarterbacks who have taken snaps can move the offense consistently. Southeast is last in scoring offense, last in passing yardage, last in total offense. When the Racers hit the 24-point plateau early in the fourth period, they had gone somewhere Southeast has yet to go this season in five Division I-AA games.

And they did with the help of a redshirt freshman quarterback Griffin stole out of Southeast's recruiting backyard -- St. Louis.

"Actually, Murray was the only offer I had," said Jeff Ehrhardt, who came out of Westminster Christian in the spring of 2006 as the No. 3 QB in St. Louis and No. 6 in Missouri, according to his media guide bio.

Ehrhardt, after completing just two of 14 passes in the first half, was 9-for-19 for 153 yards and two TDs in the second half.

"We didn't feel like it was David and Goliath, and we were David," Ehrhardt said. "We felt like it was an evenly matched game, and we were going to win."

Southeast had all of 78 passing yards through three periods before Houston Lillard, who was injured early in the Sept. 22 loss to Samford when he was beginning to emerge, came on to pass for 139 yards in the final quarter.

By then, the Redhawks were behind and had to throw.

Still, they managed 17 points against a team that yielded 40 or more in five of its previous six games.

Ranked as the league's top rushing offense, Southeast netted a below-average 192 yards, mostly thanks to four more sacks that elevated the season total to 17. Also, the Redhawks were without leading rusher Tim Holloman for a second straight game since has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for an undisclosed reason.

Freshman running back Mike Jones, taken from Murray's backyard in Paducah, Ky., rushed for 131 yards on 14 carries and scored his first collegiate touchdown. Two of them, in fact.

"He ran the ball hard," Griffin said.

"I don't think it's any mystery what they're going to do," Griffin added. "They're going to line up and smash you. Tony is a Nebraska guy, and he's going to play tough, physical football, and so are his teams."

Tough, physical may someday be used to describe the Redhawks. For now, young and last in the OVC definitely apply.

Griffin has been there very recently, and he talked about it he he's approached it with his players.

"They understand what's going on," he said. "I can't fast-forward their age. All I can do is keep coaching them."

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