For the second consecutive year and fourth time since 2012 the University of Tennessee at Martin football team has clinched at least a share of the eighth annual Sgt. York Trophy with the 21-16 victory over Tennessee State at Hale Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Skyhawks (3-5, 2-3 OVC) picked up their first road victory at Tennessee State since 2008 and first victory at Hale Stadium in school history. The Skyhawks will have to wait until next week if they will bring the Sgt. York Trophy back to UT Martin when they play host to Austin Peay. UT Martin currently sits at 2-0 in the quadrangular season series between the four OVC football playing schools (Austin Peay, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT Martin) located in the state of Tennessee.
Much of today’s victory is credit to the stellar play of the Skyhawk defensive unit. Despite giving up 367 yards of total offense as opposed to 210 yards gained, the Skyhawks forced two fumbles, recovered one fumble, returned an interception for a touchdown and tallied six tackles for loss.
Junior quarterback Jarod Neal took all snaps under center for the Skyhawks, effectively managing the game while converting on 11-of-18 pass attempts for 67 yards and one touchdown. Eight receivers tallied at least one catch while Kyle Kerrick, Ladevin Fair and Caylon Weathers each notched a pair of receptions. Converted offensive lineman Corey Rogers tallied the team’s lone touchdown reception.
Four Skyhawks saw their names called in the run game, led by the play of Reuben Duckworth and his 14 carries. Duckworth tallied 59 yards on the day, along with one touchdown. Najee Ray tallied 60 yards on 10 attempts while Abou Toure reach the 1,000 yard career plateau with his first of 12 carries on the afternoon, finishing with 48 yards in the game.
The defensive unit forced two turnovers on the day, including one fumble recovery and an interception return for a touchdown. Leon Carlton III tallied seven tackles while six players recorded at least a part in a tackle for loss. Nick Brown notched the team’s lone sack while Keith Jones recorded his first career interception, returning it 42 yards for a touchdown.
“That was a big win and I’m very proud,” said UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson. “It was a great job by our defensive staff as we have a great plan and executed it. We challenged our offensive line after last season and they responded. Not a big statistical day but it was enough to get a big win on the road and anytime you can do that, it’s been a good day. We’re sitting at 2-0 in the Sgt. York with Homecoming next week, we’re looking forward to it. We’ve had to adjust our goals and the Sgt. York Trophy is one of them. We want to see Sgt. York in our building next season.”
Tennessee State (4-4, 1-3 OVC) dropped its third consecutive game despite tallying 314 passing yard. Quarterback Michael German led the Tigers under center, converting on 18-of-36 attempts for 314 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Ryan Mitchell was a standout for the Tigers in the receiving game, catching six passes for 156 yards and one touchdown. Weldon Garlington also got in on the action, notching five receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown.
After neither team could get anything going in the first quarter, the Skyhawks got onto the scoreboard on their first drive of the second quarter. Beginning their drive on the UTM 30, Ray scampered on four consecutive rushing attempts for a combined 40 yards and into TSU territory. From there the drive belonged to Duckworth. Duckworth would tally four rushing attempts before punctuating the drive with a 10-yard rushing touchdown over the left side. The touchdown gave the Skyhawks the 7-0 lead with 11:33 to play in the half and was Duckworth’s first of his Skyhawk career.
Tennessee State would look to answer the Skyhawk touchdown by putting points up of its own on the following possession. After beginning their drive on their own 25, German would connect with Mitchell for a 39-yard completion to move into Skyhawk territory. A nine-yard sack by Brown would back the Tigers up before a personal foul penalty would give TSU another first down to work with. TSU would later convert on another 25-yard completion to Garlinton before settling for a 34-yard field goal to bring the score to 7-3 with just under six minute to play in the half.
UT Martin would go into the half with a 7-3 lead, totaling 147 yards of total offense as opposed to Tennessee State’s 141 yards. The big advantage for the Skyhawks in the first half was 110 yards on the ground while TSU tallied 118 yards through the air.
The Skyhawk defense continued to impress in the opening minutes of the second half, much like the first. With Tennessee State beginning its first possession of the second half on its own 33, the Tigers tallied four consecutive rushes for a first down. With a first down, German would turn to the air but heavy pressure from Deante Glover would cause a quick pass right into the hands of nose tackle Jones, who would return the interception 42 yards for a touchdown. The defensive score is the first interception return of the season and just the second set of defensive points. Following the point after attempt, the Skyhawks would hold a 14-3 lead just over two minutes into the half.
Weighing heavily on the play of their defense, the Skyhawks would set up another scoring drive on the shoulders of the defensive unit. After a punt pinned the Tigers on their own 10 yard line, Nick Dance would get to the running back on the first play from scrimmage and strip the ball loose before Tony Bell would recover the fumble on the TSU 12.
With the offense taking over with just 12 yards to score, Toure would rush up the middle to pick up five yards. Following the rushing attempt, Neal would find converted lineman Rogers for a 7-yard touchdown completion – the first of his career – to stretch the Skyhawk lead out to 21-3 with 1:31 to play in the third quarter.
Following the score, Tennessee State would look to get back into the game on its following possession. After beginning their drive on the TSU 26, the Tigers would get the offense moving. German would convert back-to-back pass attempt to Garlington and Mitchell for 27 and 13 yards, respectively. German wouldn’t be done, hitting his receivers on his next two attempts before finding Garlington for a 26-yard touchdown down the middle of the field. Following the extra point, the Skyhawks would hold a 21-10 lead with 14:17 to play in the game.
After exchanging punts on the next two drives, the Tigers made the game interesting late in the fourth quarter. Faced with first and 10 on its own 25, Tennessee State would turn to German who would find Mitchell for a 75-yard touchdown reception, scampering the length of the field to bring the game to 21-16 score. Looking for a two-point conversion to bring the Tigers within three points, they would convert the play before being called back on a penalty. The second attempt was no good.
The Skyhawks would look to ice the game in the final five minutes, taking over on their final drive with 4:34 to play. The running back duo of Ray and Duckworth would slowly move the ball down the field before milking the clock to exhaustion and give the Skyhawks their second consecutive victory.
UT Martin will return to action a week from Saturday when the Skyhawks play host to Austin Peay on Saturday, Oct. 25. Action from Hardy Graham Stadium is scheduled for 2 p.m. with Homecoming festivities and senior day activities to take place prior to the game.