Southeast-UTM loser to occupy OVC cellar

Saturday, October 30, 2004

An improved Tennessee-Martin squad is trying to end its eight-year lease on the basement.

By Marty Mishow ~ Southeast Missourian

Don't be surprised if the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks have somewhat of an extra bounce in their step today when they visit Houck Stadium for Southeast Missouri State University's homecoming game.

That's because the Skyhawks will be riding high after by far their most impressive Ohio Valley Conference victory -- and one of their few OVC wins of any kind -- in the last decade.

UTM notched just its third OVC triumph since 1995 last Saturday by scoring 26 consecutive fourth-quarter points to stun Eastern Illinois 32-14.

"It was a big win for us," said UTM coach Matt Griffin, who believes his squad will carry some added confidence into today's contest. "You would think so and we certainly hope so."

The Skyhawks improved to 2-6 overall and 1-4 in OVC play heading into the 1 p.m. matchup against Southeast (1-6, 1-3), which is coming off a 28-13 loss at Murray State. The loser will be saddled with last place in the nine-team league. Southeast is currently in eighth place, just one-half game ahead of UTM.

"It's a key game for both teams," said Southeast coach Tim Billings. "We need it for confidence sake. Right now our kids just don't have a lot of confidence."

UTM is still far from a powerhouse, but Griffin appears to have the young squad -- the Skyhawks start 10 sophomores and six freshmen, along with just one senior -- on the upswing in his second season as coach.

Last year, the Skyhawks ended a 43-game OVC losing streak dating back to 1996 by beating Tennessee Tech 30-23 in overtime. UTM then dropped another 10 consecutive OVC contests before wiping out a 14-6, fourth-quarter deficit against Eastern Illinois.

The Skyhawks have already equaled their overall win total in any season since 1995. The Skyhawks have finished in the OVC basement eight straight years, although they tied with Tennessee Tech last year. Since moving to Division I-AA in 1992, their lone winning season was a 6-5 mark in 1993.

"I think we're making progress, but it never comes as quickly as any coach would like," Griffin said.

UTM ranks last in the OVC in total offense with just 304.1 yards per game, but the Skyhawks appear to have some dangerous weapons.

Freshman tailback Donald Chapman has rushed for 633 yards, including 143 against Eastern Illinois. Junior quarterback Brady Wahlberg has thrown for 1,536 yards, but with 15 interceptions. Sophomore wide out Taurean Stephens is second in the OVC with 56 receptions.

Defensively, the Skyhawks are allowing 401.5 yards per game, which is a solid improvement from previous seasons.

"No question, they're a better football team than they've been," Billings said. "That's scary, because we've had trouble with them in the past."

The last few meetings between the squads have been fairly competitive, including last year's 20-7 Southeast victory, but Southeast has won the past seven games against the Skyhawks.

UTM's last triumph over Southeast came in 1996, a 7-6 decision in Cape Girardeau that preceded the Skyhawks' 43-game OVC losing streak. Billings hopes there is no repeat performance today, but he knows Southeast will have to repel a fired-up squad in order to get back on the winning track.

"They'll be coming in here with a lot of confidence and right now we don't have any," Billings said. "We need to turn that around and get a win."

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