MARTIN, Tenn. – The No. 24 ranked University of Tennessee at Martin football team made a piece of history on Saturday night, notching the team’s first pair of victories over ranked opponents in consecutive weeks in program history with a decisive 31-16 win over No. 20 ranked Tennessee State.
The Skyhawks (3-1, 1-0 OVC) opened Ohio Valley Conference play on a high after taking care of business on their home field of Hardy M. Graham Stadium. After the team’s first home contest was hampered by a heavy downpour, the Skyhawks welcomed 6,484 fans to today’s Family Weekend contest which paired two nationally ranked opponents and a barrage of other festivities both in pregame and postgame. The win also gave the Skyhawks an early lead in the team’s quest for a fourth consecutive Sgt. York Trophy.
With a lively crowd behind them, UT Martin took advantage of its home field by controlling the tempo for much of the contest. In a game with saw two of the nation’s best defenses square off on the same field, the Skyhawks controlled possession at 33:25 minutes while slowing the tempo to feature just 67 offensive plays.
“I’m proud of the kids,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “That was going to be like a NFL game with field position, big plays and turnovers. Tennessee State is a good team. They’ll be there at the end of the season. We had them at home with a great crowd tonight and we appreciate the energy. The pressbox, the music, the fireworks – that’s what college football is supposed to be about. That locker room after a big win and the celebration – that’s what football is supposed to be about. I appreciate these guys letting me be a part of it.”
While the offensive numbers were subdued due to the matchup’s defensive dominance, the Skyhawks would still manage 240 yards of offense – including 100 yards rushing against a squad in Tennessee State which entered the game ranked 15th nationally by allowing just 67.3 rushing yards per game. Included in the day was the play of the Skyhawk defense which once again proved dynamic, holding Tennessee State to just 259 yards of total offense while forcing two turnovers and scoring on a blocked punt.
Highlighting the afternoon for the Skyhawks was junior running back Ladarius Galloway with 25 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns while notching 118 all-purpose yards. Meanwhile senior quarterback Troy Cook completed 20-of-32 passes for 140 yards and one touchdown, a one-yard strike to Caylon Weathers – who paced the squad with four catches for 37 yards.
Defensively the Skyhawks saw senior safety Tae Martin lead the way with a game-high 13 tackles while junior Kevin Prather, Jr. notched 10 tackles – including one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. Flushing opposing quarterback Treon Harris out of the pocket was the name of the game as the Skyhawks tallied six quarterback hurries, two sacks and five tackles for loss. The duo of Garrett Wall and Justin Jackson both tallied sacks on the day while James Gilleylen proved dynamic with his seven tackles while also notching both a forced fumble and a recovery.
UT Martin would jump out to an early lead in the contest after scoring on the team’s opening drive with a lengthy 11-play, 76-yard drive which ate of nearly six minutes of clock. Big runs by Galloway would set up the drive before a three-yard push would give the Skyhawks an early advantage. A 32-yard field goal by Mitch Mersman would make it a two-score margin just three minutes later before a one-yard touchdown pass from Cook to Weathers right before the first quarter ended gave the squad a 17-point lead heading into the second period.
Things would slow down offensively for the Skyhawks in the second quarter after a robust start to the contest. While the offensively and defensive player makers receive much of the attention, it was UT Martin’s special team unit which gave the home squad a 24-point margin after TJ Jefferson blocked a punt inside the five-yard line and Devonte Howard recovered inside the endzone for the team’s first block returned for a touchdown since 2010.
“The key obviously was getting off to a fast start,” said Simpson. “The first drive, we went down there and scored to give us a lot of confidence. The defense got us a short field, we kicked a field goal to go up 10-0 and then we scored again to make it 17-0. Then they woke up and started playing, making adjustments, started bringing a lot of pressure and forcing us to make some plays so the second quarter wasn’t as good to us.”
Tennessee State would begin its comeback attempt on the next play with a big special teams play of its own. Needing a jump start, junior receiver DeVon Johnson returned the following kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to break the team’s shutout. Another oddity would occur on the team’s following special teams stand as a botched snap by the punter resulted in a defensive safety as Brett Arkelian kicked the ball out of the endzone to make it a 24-9 contest going into the half.
The second half would see all of its fire power in the third quarter as the Tigers came out of the break looking to continue chipping away at the Skyhawks advantage. Moving the ball efficiently with an 11-play, 69-yard drive, Tennessee State scored its first offensive touchdown of the day on a one-yard rush by quarterback Treon Harris. With the game back suddenly at a one-score margin, the Skyhawks would take advantage of a short field as Galloway punctuated the contest with a 12-yard scamper to make it 31-16.
“What I liked about it is that they only scored one touchdown against our defense,” said Simpson. “When you’re playing like that, you’re trying not to turn it over and the offense didn’t. It was a team win. Each week is going to be about just going 1-0. Right now we are 1-0 in the league and what does that do for you? It makes you feel good tonight and tomorrow you come back and go back to work.”
UT Martin will look to build upon its early season momentum with a road matchup at OVC foe Austin Peay on Saturday, Sept. 30. Kickoff from Fortera Stadium is scheduled for 6 p.m.