Indians, Racers attempt to cure red-zone blues

Saturday, October 20, 2001

Murray State football coach Joe Pannunzio thinks his team has been playing well this season.

Then why is Pannunzio so frustrated?

Because the Racers don't have nearly enough victories to show for it.

Sound familiar? Well, Southeast Missouri State University coach Tim Billings and his squad have been in something of a similar predicament.

Which makes today's Southeast homecoming game against MSU at Houck Stadium so intriguing.

"I think it's a game between kind of mirror teams," said Billings. "We're both kind of in the same boat. We've both lost some games we've had the opportunity to win and we've both been able to move the ball but haven't been able to score very many points."

Southeast (3-4 overall, 1-2 Ohio Valley Conference) had golden opportunities to prevail in its first three losses this season but fell just short in the closing seconds each time.

MSU (2-3, 0-2) had excellent chances to win both its conference contests but came up just short, falling to Tennessee Tech 15-12 and Eastern Kentucky 21-13.

Last Saturday's game against Eastern Kentucky was a perfect example of why Pannunzio says he has been pulling out plenty of hairs lately. The Racers totally dominated the Colonels statistically, holding a 385-134 edge in total yards, but touchdowns on a blocked punt and interception return helped doom MSU.

"We're playing good, we're just snakebit," Pannunzio said. "It's really frustrating, but I've got a good group of kids and they're staying in there."

Added Pannunzio with a laugh, "But when you lose two in a row...I can't sleep, can't read the paper."

Moving the football well between the 20-yard lines but failing to score enough points is a sore spot with both Pannunzio and Billings.

The Indians and Racers rank second and third, respectively, in the OVC in total offense with 390.3 and 388.6 yards per game. But in scoring they are at the very bottom, with Southeast sixth (23 points per game) and MSU seventh (19.0 ppg).

"Offensively, we had everybody back (from last year), but we've struggled to score," said Pannunzio. "We have moved the ball, but we can't seem to get it into the end zone."

Said Billings, "We've been able to move the ball well between the 20s, but we need to start scoring more points. That's been one of the things holding us back."

Billings said there is no doubting the kind of talent the Racers possess offensively, led by sophomore quarterback Stewart Childress, who passed for the third-most yards in OVC history last year during his rookie season -- 2,928.

But Pannunzio said Childress has struggled somewhat so far this season, although his numbers are still fairly decent. He has completed 98 of 186 passes for 1,046 yards, but with just four touchdowns and six interceptions.

"He's been spotty, but he's coming along," said Pannunzio of Childress. "We hoped he'd be further along by now."

Childress has plenty of weapons as Michael Slater and Marcus Christon have both caught 25 passes. In the backfield, Garner Byars has rushed for 403 yards and is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Billy Blanchard has added 247 yards on the ground while averaging 5.5 yards per attempt.

"They really have some (offensive) weapons," Billings said. "Slater really tore us up last year, I thought Childress was as good as any quarterback in the league last year and they have two good running backs."

Defensively, the Racers really struggled last year, but they appear to have improved in that department as they are allowing 338.5 yards per game, which is well off their 2000 standard of 425 yards a contest.

"We're playing a lot better defense than we have been," Pannunzio said. "We've been pretty effective against the run, but we haven't faced a passing attack like they've got."

And that is what concerns Pannunzio the most. The Indians are second in the OVC and 21st nationally in passing offense with 247 yards per game. Pannunzio knows the Racers will have their hands full keeping up with Southeast's wide-open attack.

"They're so explosive on offense, the way they attack things. That's going to be a big challenge for us," he said. "Overall, without a doubt, they are so much better than they were last year. He (Billings) is doing a great job."

Billings is hoping the Indians do a good enough job today to end a long run of frustration against the Racers. MSU leads the all-time series 30-4-1 and has won the past eight meetings.

"It would be great to beat them for a change," he said.

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