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Indians gain ground with new arsenal of offensive weapons
Southeast Missouri State University senior wide receiver Willie Ponder is having another All-American-type season, which should come as no surprise to anybody who has seen Ponder play for the Indians over the past two years.
But the Indians' receiving corps has not been the one-man show many feared it would be entering the season, particularly after last year's second-leading wide receiver -- Adrian Sanders -- was ruled academically ineligible in the summer.
While the spectacular Ponder has caught 51 passes for 790 yards, leads the Ohio Valley Conference in every receiving category and leads the nation's I-AA players in total receiving yards, four other receivers have caught at least 13 passes to give the Indians a well-rounded aerial attack.
Senior Tarik Simpson (24 receptions, 373 yards), sophomore Chris NesSmith (24, 284), redshirt freshman Bill Coleman (21, 209) and sophomore tight end Ray Goodson (13, 104) have been featured at various times this season. They, along with Ponder, again should be on display Saturday when the Indians (5-2, 2-0) host Eastern Illinois (4-2, 2-0) in a first-place OVC battle.
"I said before the season that I thought our receivers as a group would be better than last year, and I think that's being proven," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "Willie is having another tremendous season, but the other guys are also playing well. And some of our young receivers are really coming on.
"We've got a lot of weapons on offense and we've really been spreading the ball around."
Ponder, who caught 70 passes for 1,090 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns last year, said he felt confident entering the season that the Indians would have plenty of passing options besides himself.
"We've got a lot of people who can catch the ball," he said. "I know a lot of teams are going to be trying to shut me down, but we've got a lot of good receivers and if they pay too much attention to me, those other guys will make them pay."
Simpson was solid last year when he caught 28 passes and has come on strong after being slowed early this season with a hamstring injury.
But probably the Indians' most pleasant surprises among the receiving corps have been NesSmith and Coleman, who had no catches prior to this season.
"They were unproven going into the season, but I thought they would be good players and they're only going to get better," Billings said.
Goodson, from Jackson High School, caught eight passes last year as a true freshman but he has played a much larger roll this season, sometimes even lining up at fullback.
"Ray is a really good athlete who can run after he catches the ball," Billings said.
Add a strong running game to all those receiving weapons -- sophomore backs Corey Kinsey and Keiki Misipeka have combined for more than 1,000 yards on the ground, with Kinsey leading the OVC and Misipeka ranking sixth -- and it's no wonder the Indians are first in the OVC and 10th nationally in total offense with 444 yards per game. They also lead the conference in scoring with 34 points a contest.
"One thing that has really helped our passing attack is our running game," Billings said. "It makes it hard on the defense when you have to worry about both."
Southeast quarterback Jack Tomco, who has thrown for 1,739 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 67 percent of his passes, certainly appreciates all the options he has when he retreats into the pocket. Most of those were on display last Saturday as he went 29-for-39 for 429 yards and five touchdowns during a 50-35 win at Tennessee-Martin.
Tomco broke Southeast single-game records for touchdown passes, passing yards, total yards (also 429) and completions. He also tied Greg Brune's long-standing single-season mark of 17 TD passes that the school's current director of athletic development set in 1966.
"We've got so many weapons," Tomco said. "Everybody has just been playing great."
And not to be overlooked in Southeast's explosive attack is an offensive line that has allowed just eight sacks all season and none in the past several games.
"I haven't hardly been touched lately," Tomco said. "The line is doing such a great job, giving me all kinds of time to throw. They've been a big key to all this."
Tomco and his receivers hope to have more success Saturday as the Indians try to upset the seventh-ranked Panthers. EIU, while one of the nation's top teams, has struggled defending the pass this year, allowing an OVC-high 289 yards per game through the air.
"They've got a really good defense and it's hard to run on them, but they've had some problems with the pass," Billings said. "Hopefully we can use that to our advantage."
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