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Conference play provides a fresh start around OVC

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Some Ohio Valley Conference football teams have done well so far while others have struggled -- but that will mean little beginning this week.

That's because the OVC schedule kicks off in earnest Saturday as six of the league's nine squads play their first conference games. So what has happened to date can basically be wiped away.

"Absolutely, everybody is starting off 0-0," said Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe -- whose 2-0 Gamecocks are among just two undefeated league teams -- during Tuesday's weekly OVC coaches teleconference.

Added Southeast Missouri State University coach Tim Billings, whose 0-3 Indians are one of three winless conference squads, "It's the start of a new season, back to 0-0. That's a plus for everybody."

Tennessee State (3-0) beat Tennessee-Martin (1-2) on Sept. 9 in the only conference game played so far. Eastern Illinois (0-2) doesn't open its league schedule until Oct. 2.

One of this week's three conference games is particularly intriguing as defending champion Jacksonville State -- which won the title during its first year in the league -- visits preseason favorite Eastern Kentucky (0-2). The Gamecocks were picked second behind the Colonels in the OVC preseason poll.

"We're starting off with a team picked to win the league and winning on the road is tough. I think we'll find out if we're legitimately a contender by playing a quality team on the road," Crowe said.

But Crowe isn't about to place a must-win tag on a game so early in the conference season.

"The conference championship will be won at the end, it won't be won at the beginning despite who wins this football game," Crowe said.

Jacksonville State is entering the early showdown with momentum after piling up 532 yards of offense during a 65-20 romp at Chattanooga.

But Eastern Kentucky is anything but rolling right now, mainly because star quarterback Matt Guice is out with an injury and won't play Saturday. Backup Adam Ellis is also injured and doesn't figure to see action.

Guice and Ellis both missed the Colonels' 21-8 loss to rival Western Kentucky in which Josh Greco made his first start and threw seven interceptions to set an OVC record and tie a Division I-AA mark.

"It's a huge loss for our football team," said Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope of not having Guice available. "But we're still a good football team. We're capable of going out and winning against every opponent on our schedule."

Like Crowe, Hope said he's not about to place an undue amount of emphasis on this one game.

"I don't think this game is for the conference championship," he said. "There's too much parity in the league. If we were to stub our toes, it wouldn't change our goals one bit."

This week's other two conference games feature Southeast hosting Samford (1-2) and Murray State (1-2) entertaining Tennessee Tech (2-1).

"We're anxious to get started with conference play," Tennessee Tech coach Mike Hennigan said. "It's the first ballgame of a long season in conference play and any road win would be important."

Southeast, which has been outscored 135-40 while facing two Division I-A teams in Bowling Green and Central Michigan -- along with Southern Illinois, the nation's top-ranked Division I-AA squad -- will be playing its first home game.

"Thank goodness," Billings said. "We've finally unpacked our bags. It's good to be back home."

The OVC's other three teams will all have non-conference games. Eastern Illinois visits Division I-A Eastern Michigan, Tennessee-Martin travels to Indiana State and Tennessee State faces Florida A&M in Atlanta.

OVC-Gateway Challenge

For the second straight year, the OVC has come up far short in its challenge series against teams from the Gateway Conference.

Last season, the first in the challenge series, the Gateway went 8-0 against the OVC -- and that's not counting Western Kentucky's 45-7 pounding of Jacksonville State in the playoffs.

So far this year, the Gateway is again pitching a shutout with a 5-0 record against the OVC. The OVC has a final opportunity to save face Saturday as Tennessee-Martin visits Indiana State.

Extra points

* Jacksonville State tailback Oscar Bonds and Tennessee State defensive end Paul Thomas were honored as the OVC's offensive and defensive players of the week. Bonds rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries during the rout of Chattanooga. Thomas had nine tackles and blocked a field goal as the Tigers rallied to beat Jackson State 21-20.

* Tennessee-Martin ended a 35-game road losing streak by beating Austin Peay 31-14. Prior to Saturday, the Skyhawks' last road victory also came at the Governors' expense, 36-26 in 1997.

* Tennessee Tech wide receiver Drew Hixon remains in a Tampa hospital after being seriously injured in the Eagles' game at South Florida on Sept. 11.

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