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Indians face future OVC foe Samford
Nothing against Southeast Missouri State University, but Samford coach Bill Gray would love to put a damper on the Indians' breakout season -- and give his team something to build on before entering the Ohio Valley Conference.
But Gray knows that's easier said than done as the Bulldogs, who join the OVC next year, conclude the Indians' season tonight with a 6 p.m. kickoff at Houck Stadium.
"They've got a great football team. I was very impressed with them even before they beat Eastern Kentucky," Gray said. "I'm even more impressed now. We've got a big challenge on our hands, but we're looking forward to it.
"We're treating it like a conference game, to give our players a taste of what it will be like around here for the future. It's a big test for us, but our kids will get an opportunity to see where we stand."
The Indians (7-4), who have already posted their first winning season since 1994, are looking to reach eight wins for the first time since 1969. And they're still hopeful of an NCAA Division I-AA playoff berth. Coach Tim Billings said his team will keep practicing next week if it wins tonight just in case a longshot bid materializes.
The Bulldogs (4-5), who close out their season next week, will get their final taste of OVC competition tonight before they finally join a Division I-AA conference for the first time in 2003. Samford, located in Birmingham, Ala., and another Alabama school coming into the OVC, Jacksonville State, will make for a nine-team football conference next year.
"We have not been in a conference and it has really made for tough scheduling," Gray said. "I'm excited about having eight games every year that we know are on our schedule and I'm excited about joining the OVC.
"It's a great league. It seems like it's well balanced, just by keeping up with the scores and the games we've been involved in. It seems like a lot of teams can win on any given Saturday. We have to do a better job recruiting to be competitive in the OVC, but we're looking forward to the challenge."
The Bulldogs have had quite a bit of success for much of the past 15 years before leveling off recently.
In 1991, the Bulldogs reached the I-AA semifinals under Terry Bowden and they also made the playoffs the next year. They posted four consecutive winning records from 1995-99 but slipped to 4-7 in 2000 and then 5-5 last season.
Samford was 1-4 a year ago when Gray took over as interim coach and he led the Bulldogs to four victories in their last five games before being handed the head coaching job on a permanent basis.
Like Southeast, Samford is a young team with only a handful of seniors being key players. But unlike the Indians, the Bulldogs have struggled much of the season.
"We do have a young team," Gray said. "We only have 13 seniors, not all of which are regulars. I feel like we've got some good young players, a lot of good freshmen and sophomores."
Also like Southeast, which has star receiver Willie Ponder, Samford features one of the nation's premier wide outs in senior Aryvia Holmes, who ranks third nationally in receptions per game and receiving yards per game while also being second nationally in punt returns (18.2 yards per return). Holmes has caught 69 passes for 959 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He's as good a player as we've had on campus in a long time," Gray said.
The Bulldogs have used two quarterbacks almost equally, with senior Josh Kellett and sophomore Ramon Nelson combining to throw for nearly 2,000 yards. Leading rusher Jason Ogletree has 417 yards.
Defensively, the Bulldogs have been suspect, particularly the past two weeks when they gave up 998 yards and 105 points in losses to OVC teams Murray State (54-17) and Tennessee Tech (51-44). Samford played one other OVC squad this year, beating Tennessee-Martin 41-10.
"They've given up a lot of points the last few weeks, but they really play hard on defense," Billings said. "Offensively, they're really good. They spread you out and throw the ball. And they're dangerous on special teams with Holmes. They're a scary team."
Led by record-setting players in quarterback Jack Tomco and Ponder, who have led a Southeast offense that ranks 11th nationally with 429 yards per game, and a fast improving defense that shut down Eastern Kentucky during a 35-21 upset win last Saturday, the Indians also look pretty scary to Gray.
"They're just a solid football team," he said. "We've got a big challenge ahead of us."