MARTIN, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee at Martin football team overcame an early deficit this afternoon to cruise over Ohio Valley Conference rival Murray State by a 45-17 margin at Hardy Graham Stadium.
UT Martin (6-3, 4-2 OVC) trailed 14-0 after the first quarter but bounced back by outscoring the visiting Racers 45-3 over the final three quarters of play. This game marked the second straight week that the Skyhawks have set a new season-high in points after compiling 38 points at Austin Peay on Oct. 26.
The Skyhawk defense stood out today with several remarkable efforts. Junior linebacker Tony Bell recorded 4.5 sacks, which is the most out of any NCAA player at all levels in 2013. The 4.5 sacks tied with Tennessee Tech’s Marcus Edwards (2010) for the most sacks in a single game by an OVC player in the last decade. The outstanding performance was part of a career-best 16 tackles for Bell, which ties for the most stops in a single game by any OVC player in 2013.
Redshirt senior cornerback Thad Williams also had a career day today, coming away with two interceptions to go along with eight tackles. The two picks marked the first time a Skyhawk had a multi-interception game since Markei Guy accomplished the feat at Tennessee State in 2010.
Camaren Harris also added an interception while Ben Johnson (one sack) and DJ Roberts (0.5 sacks) got into the action for UT Martin to help the Skyhawks set a new season-high with three picks and six sacks.
Offensively, Jarod Neal chalked up a career day – accounting for four touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore signal caller out of Hendersonville, Tenn. completed 75 percent of his passes (18-for-24) for 245 yards and a career-best three touchdowns while adding a career-high 38 yards on the ground, including a go-ahead rushing score in the third quarter to give UT Martin a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.
Jeremy Butler continued his dominant season today, hauling in nine receptions for 133 yards and a pair of touchdown catches. It was the seventh 100-yard receiving game and sixth multi-touchdown performance of Butler’s career, as he has now caught eight touchdowns in the last six games and 19 overall scores in 19 career games at UT Martin.
Chris Thompson (six catches, 80 yards) also snared a touchdown grab today for the Skyhawks.
OVC rushing leader DJ McNeil gained 111 yards on 28 carries for his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He added a pair of touchdowns for the fifth multi-touchdown game of his career, as he now stands in fourth place on the all-time UT Martin rushing touchdown list with 20.
“That was a good team win,” Skyhawk head coach Jason Simpson said. “At this point in the season, we’re a tired football team and the kids left their guts out on the field. We could have wavered but I think we grew up today. This was a win that I have been waiting on all year – we had lost our last two at home and to see us fight back to get the win was very gratifying and I appreciate the kids and their commitment this entire week.”
Murray State (5-4, 3-2 OVC) was led by Jaamal Berry’s 134 rushing yards and a touchdown. The Skyhawk defense limited the Racers to 284 yards of total offense and 123 combined yards in the second half.
Neither team would get on the scoreboard until UT Martin’s third possession of the game. After taking over at its own 2-yard line, the Skyhawks ran an option play with Dylan Favre at quarterback, who saw action for the first time in nearly a month this afternoon. Favre’s backwards pitch emerged loose in the endzone and Murray State’s T-Ray Malone fell on the ball to give the Racers a 7-0 advantage at the 4:58 mark of the first quarter.
On Murray State’s next possession, Berry scored from 26 yards out to make the score 14-0 with less than a minute to go in the opening quarter.
The Skyhawks would then score on their ensuing possession, as McNeil rumbled into the endzone from five yards out with 13 minutes to go before halftime. A Jackson Redditt PAT sliced UT Martin’s deficit in half at 14-7.
UT Martin then forced a punt and took advantage of good field position to tie the game in only two plays. Neal hit Thompson for a 20-yard gain and found Butler for a 21-yard strike on the next play, capping off a scoring drive that lasted just 34 seconds.
Bell accounted for a pair of sacks on Murray State’s next drive and the Skyhawk offense did their part to give UT Martin its first lead of the contest. Redditt converted a 33-yard field goal with 3:44 remaining in the second quarter to make the score 17-14 in favor of the Skyhawks.
The Racers would answer with a field goal from 24 yards out as time expired in the first half to result in a 17-17 tie at the break.
Murray State would receive the ball first in the second half but the Skyhawk defense held their ground as the Racers missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.
After the two teams then traded punts, UT Martin’s pressure on defense led to another Skyhawk touchdown. With Murray State driving into Skyhawk territory, Williams came up with an interception that would lead to a one-yard touchdown run by Neal that gave UT Martin a 24-17 lead with 4:18 to go in the third quarter.
The Skyhawk defense then forced a three-and-out and five plays later, McNeil marched in from two yards out to extend UT Martin’s lead to 31-17.
With Murray State facing a third-and-19 from the UT Martin 30-yard line, Bell broke through the line once again to deliver yet another sack to end the third quarter and put a pause on the Racer drive.
UT Martin then pieced together an impressive 12-play, 99-yard drive that spanned 6:53 to help put the game away. Neal delivered a 41-yard pass to Butler on the drive, then found Corey Jordan for an 11-yard gain on fourth-and-nine from the Murray State 24-yard line. Four plays later, Neal fired an 11-yard touchdown strike to Thompson to make the score 38-17.
Williams then stepped in front of a Parks Frazier pass for his second interception of the game with 6:57 remaining, setting up the final Skyhawk touchdown of the afternoon. Neal lofted a perfectly-timed 13-yard touchdown pass to Butler with 4:05 remaining to provide the final scoring margin of 45-17.
The Skyhawks will now step out of conference to take on in-state Football Bowl Subdivision foe Memphis on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. UT Martin chalked up its first-ever win over an FBS opponent when it defeated Memphis by a 20-17 margin in the season opener last season.