OVC-leader Tennessee State visits struggling Redhawks

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tennessee State football coach James Webster can't imagine his Ohio Valley Conference-leading Tigers overlooking Southeast Missouri State.

Not considering the type of parity Webster believes rules in the OVC this year.

Two results from last Saturday might just prove Webster's point.

TSU needed a field goal with 2 seconds left to beat winless Austin Peay 37-34 -- at home no less.

And perennial OVC power Eastern Illinois had to hold off visiting Southeast 24-21.

"There are no gimme games," Webster said. "There's not anybody a whole lot better than anybody else."

That's why Webster professes to be wary of today's 1 p.m. game on Southeast's homecoming.

"I expect the same thing we got from Austin Peay," Webster said. "They're going to fight us to the end.

"I expect them to play well. We're going to have to play well to beat them. There won't be a big score difference in the game."

The Tigers enter today's contest on a roll, sporting records of 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the OVC while being ranked 19th nationally.

Southeast certainly is not on a roll, lagging at 2-5 overall and an eighth-place 0-3 in the nine-team OVC.

But the Redhawks showed they could at least hang with one of the OVC's traditional powers in the loss to Eastern Illinois.

"I think we can play with anybody in the conference the rest of the way," senior linebacker Nick Stauffer said.

Southeast coach Tony Samuel knows the Redhawks will need a big-time effort to knock off the potent Tigers, who feature a host of Division I-A transfers.

"Tennessee State has the most talent in the league, I really think," Samuel said. "They're loaded with talent."

Statistics bear that out.

TSU is first in the OVC in both total offense and total defense, averaging 412 yards per game while allowing an average of 325 yards.

The Tigers' scoring average of 33 points ranks second in the conference, while they are third in scoring defense with an average of 24.6 points allowed.

TSU already has beaten two squads -- defending OVC champion Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin -- perceived to be among the conference's better clubs.

"I think this football team has earned the right to be where they are," Webster said of the Tigers' perch atop the OVC standings.

Southeast will have to contend with some of the OVC's top offensive weapons, led by senior quarterback Antonio Heffner and senior tailback Javarris Williams.

Heffner, who started one game as a freshman at South Carolina in 2005 before transferring to TSU, leads the OVC with 1,562 yards passing despite being bothered by a sore shoulder most of the year.

The shoulder also hampered Heffner last year and forced him to miss some time, after he was first-team all-conference in 2006.

"He has really fought through the injury all through the season. He's a tough competitor," Webster said. "He threw the ball well against Austin Peay. I really feel in this next game he'll recover even more."

Heffner, who has completed 61.8 percent of his passes, is also TSU's second-leading rusher with 335 yards.

"He's a great runner. He's a great thrower. He's a great athlete," Samuel said.

Williams leads the OVC in rushing with 694 yards and in touchdowns with 11. He piled up 195 yards on 30 carries and scored three TDs against Austin Peay.

Williams, who gained more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, entered the year as the third-leading active career rusher in Division I-AA. He has 3,986 career yards.

TSU also features the OVC's top kick returner in JaJuan Spillman, a Louisville transfer who is averaging 27.3 yards per return, and Samuel said TSU's defense is highly talented as well.

All of which makes Southeast's challenge today especially difficult.

"No one's invincible. Everyone can be beat," Samuel said. "We'll play them hard."

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