Boxscore PDF (Photo courtesy Matt Reynolds/JSU Photo)
JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – The University of Tennessee at Martin football team saw its Ohio Valley Conference title aspirations come to a close with a 33-7 loss at No. 2 ranked Jacksonville State on Saturday afternoon.
The Skyhawks conclude the regular season with a 7-5 overall record while finishing 6-2 in the OVC for a second place finish. Despite facing one of the most rigorous schedules in the country which featured three games against Football Bowl Subdivision programs, 12 consecutive games without a bye week and six wins against Football Championship Subdivision foes – the Skyhawks still managed their sixth season with seven wins or more since 2006.
UT Martin became just the second FCS team this season to eclipse 300 yards of total offense against the nation’s top ranked defense with 318 yards. While the Gamecocks came into the contest allowing just 74.1 rushing yards per contest, the Skyhawks mounted 126 yards to mark the second best rushing performance against Jacksonville State this season – finishing only behind LSU’s 244 yards on Sept. 10.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Skyhawks limited the Gamecocks to just 306 yards of total offense – well below their season average of 444.6 yards per game. The Skyhawks forced two turnovers in the contest, an interception by Caleb Counce and a fumble recovery by Kahlid Hagens. Junior safety Joseph Este led all players with 13 tackles in the contest – including nine solos.
Offensively the Skyhawks struggled with turnovers early before settling down. Four first half interceptions would lead to scores for the Gamecocks while Troy Cook managed to complete just 17-of-45 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. Cook found senior Kyle Kerrick five times for 88 yards while connecting with Greg McKillion for the team’s lone score – a 20-yard strike in the third quarter.
“They are a good football team, there is no doubt about it, but I don’t think we played our best game today,” said FCS National Coach of the Year finalist Jason Simpson. “We moved the ball at times but couldn’t make enough plays to put pressure on them. I think our defense is one of the top defense in country, we just couldn’t overcome the early turnovers.”
“I do think that when we look back at our body of work - with seven wins, three FBS games and six wins in the conference – that should be enough to earn a spot into the playoffs,” continued Simpson. “To see our defense do what it did against one of the top teams in the country, I will make our pitch that our league deserves two bids into the playoffs. I would love to see our names show up tomorrow on the at-large bid list.”
No. 2 Jacksonville State (10-1, 7-0 OVC) pushed its unbeaten conference streak to 24 games while clinching the team’s third consecutive outright league championship behind Player of the Year candidate Eli Jenkins. Jenkins completed 7-of-16 passes for 104 yards through the air but it was his feet which did the bulk of the team’s damage, tallying 13 carries for 54 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gamecocks also relied heavily on their defense which saw Quan Stoudemire and Marlon Bridges lead the team with 10 tackles each. Bridges also led a trio of Jaylen Hill (two) and Darius Jackson (one) which garnered four interceptions in the contest.
The Gamecocks would prove its defensive prowess throughout the contest, forcing the Skyhawks into four turnovers in the first half alone. Cook would be intercepted on the Skyhawks’ first drive of the contest by Hill who returned the pick 12 yards to set up a short field for the Gamecocks. With the short field, JSU would turn to Roc Thomas who spun his way to a 20-yard rush to set up first and goal. As the ball sat on the one, Jenkins would tally his first touchdown of the day with a quarterback keeper to put the Gamecocks on the board.
Two more interceptions by UT Martin would plague the offense while proving beneficial for Jacksonville State. After the game’s second interception would give JSU the ball on the UTM 11, the Skyhawk defense would come up strong by limiting the home squad to just a 28-yard field goal by Cade Stinnett. Another interception would lead to points for the Gamecocks later in the period. Following the Skyhawks’ third pick of the first quarter, the Gamecocks would move the ball before being held once again to a field goal following a 41-yard attempt by Stinnett. Following the pair of field goal, Jacksonville State would take a 12-0 lead into the second quarter.
UT Martin would look to get on the board on the opening drive of the second quarter. The Skyhawks would move the ball down the field following a 40-yard completion from Cook to Kerrick to put the visitors in JSU territory for the first time on the day. The team would get as close as the 19-yard line before attempting a 36-yard field goal which would be unsuccessful following a botched snap.
Jacksonville State would make UT Martin pay yet again after a costly interception. With the Skyhawks on fourth-and-three, Cook would be intercepted for the fourth time in the contest while Hill notched his second pick – returning it 77 yards to the UTM 20. With prime scoring position once again, Jenkins would take control of the contest by breaking free for a nine-yard rushing touchdown – his second of the game. Following the score, JSU would take a 19-0 lead into halftime.
Looking to get back in the contest, UT Martin relied on its steady defense to give the offense a chance. On the third play of the second half, Tae Martin would tip a pass which Counce used a diving catch to intercept his first pass of the season. Following the turnover, the Skyhawks would be positioned on the JSU 19. After various defensive penalties which continued the scoring drive on two occasions, the Skyhawks would attempt a 24-yard field goal but the attempt by Brett Arkelian would sail right to extinguish the scoring opportunity.
After the defensive stop, the Gamecocks would motor down the field in just six plays to extend their advantage. Clemons would break loose for a 20-yard rush before tallying another for 10 yards later in the drive. With the ball on the UTM 32, Jenkins would streak towards the endzone once again, tallying his third rushing touchdown to take a 26-0 advantage.
UT Martin would finally break into the scoring column late in the third quarter following another big defensive stand. After watching the offense be held out of the endzone despite reaching the one-yard line, the defense got the ball right back on the ensuing drive. With Thomas approaching a first down, Kevin Prather, Jr. would strip the ball loose while Hagens jumped on the fumble for a key defensive stop.
With the Skyhawks starting their next drive on the JSU 22, the visitors would look to the endzone following a two-yard rush by Jaimiee Bowe. Facing second and long, Cook would look to the corner of the endzone and find McKillion for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Skyhawks on the scoreboard right before the third quarter expired.
Jacksonville State would put a final stamp on its OVC championship performance in the fourth quarter. Jenkins would move through the air by connecting with Josh Barge for a 35-yard completion. With the Gamecocks inside the redzone, Jenkins would scamper loose yet again – notching his fourth rushing touchdown of the game – this time from 10 yards out to post the final score of 33-7.
UT Martin will now wait to see if the FCS Selection Committee considers the team one of the nation’s 24-best programs by assigning an at-large berth into the FCS Playoff. The FCS Playoff Selection Show can be seen on ESPNU at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20.