MURRAY – Murray State would like to forget about its last football game.
Actually, the entire experience this past Saturday against Ohio Valley Conference foe UT Martin was pretty forgettable.
The Racers were met by a Skyhawks team that outscored them 34-3 in the first 19 minutes of the game, en route to a 48-24 win in Martin, Tennessee. Nothing went right. UTM ran on a Murray State defense that had a reputation for stopping the run and the Racers’ usually solid offense was slow getting started.
And to top it off, UTM’s ROTC cadets were doing push-ups ... FOR the Racers when they scored. Whether that was from confusion caused by the Skyhawks’ dominance or that this is a courtesy custom these days, all of things are now memories for a Murray State team that entered the season as the OVC favorites and now finds itself 0-1 in league play.
“We had a rough go,” said Murray State Head Coach Dean Hood, who said his team seems to be putting the experience at Martin in the proverbial rear-view mirror as it prepares for its next outing, this Saturday against OVC opponent Southeast Missouri at Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
“They really seemed to bounce back (in Monday’s practice session) and the kids are usually more resilient than the coaches. We tend to wear that thing probably longer than we should.
“But we talked to our kids and it’s the same thing we’ve been telling them since we’ve been here ... there is not an opponent on our schedule that we can’t beat. There’s also not an opponent on our schedule that cannot beat us. And, really, you don’t have much control over it. There is no Vince Lombardi speech you give. You just try to make your guys aware of it.”
In assessing the disaster that was the first half in Martin, Hood said Tuesday in his weekly OVC Zoom news conference that there were early signs of trouble on the sidelines.
“There were things going on that indicated that we just weren’t ready for the battle in front of us. We were jumping offsides, we had personal fouls. We also weren’t ourselves on the sideline. There were a bunch of golf claps instead of our kids jumping up and down like we usually do,” he said, indicating that he was at a loss as to why this happened, based on how the Racers practiced in the days before the trip to Martin.
“It wasn’t because we didn’t prepare. Going back to (the Racers’ previous game, a 22-6 win over OVC foe Eastern Illinois at Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray), I was really disappointed in our Tuesday practice the week of that game but we didn’t have a single poor practice in getting ready for Martin.”
An early sign of trouble was how well the Skyhawks ran the ball as they found lots of space against a defense that, coming into the game, had surrendered only three total points to FCS opponents.
“When you’re running the ball that well on somebody, it’s never one thing. It was a combination of things,” Hood said of UTM, which had 176 of its 266 yards in the first half. “We misread the run at times, we had mental errors where we knew the right call but our technique was poor and we were running forward instead of closing up the edge. We had missed tackles and there were other times that it was good running by their running backs and good blocking by their line.”
As bad as the first half was, though, Hood praised his team for its second-half work, where it outscored the Skyhawks 21-14. A big reason for this success was backup quarterback D.J. Williams, who played much of the second half and finished with a solid outing. He ran the ball for 28 yards, but he also was 13-for-22 for 182 yards and a touchdown after going much of the season without having shown his ability to pass the ball.
“We’ve known he can do that,” Hood said of Williams. “It’s been crazy. We’ve had passes called and he’d end up running, but he showed that he can throw the football and he made some just unbelievable plays, very athletic plays.
“You’re standing on the sideline saying, ‘Oh! No , no, no! Oh OK! Great job! Nice work there!’”
Now, the Racers try to return to the winning side of things against the Redhawks at Houck Stadium in Cape, which is where the Racers beat SEMO about seven months ago when the teams met in the spring season. In fact, the Racers’ 24-21 win proved to be a springboard to a surprising 5-2 campaign that put them within one game of an OVC title.
The Redhawks are quite similar to the Racers so far. They have played a very tough schedule that included two teams — Southern Illinois and defending national champion Sam Houston State —who are both ranked in the top 10 of the FCS, as well as Southeastern Conference representative Missouri. Mizzou took SEC East Division rival Kentucky, now ranked No. 11 in the nation, to the wire early in the season in Lexington.
Murray State faced Cincinnati, now ranked fourth in the nation, and only trailed by two scores in the fourth quarter before the Bearcats pulled away to win by a large margin. The Racers also lost at Bowling Green, who entered the season expected to be one of the college football’s worst teams, but have been much more competitive than expected, even beating Big 10 representative Minnesota.
Both the Racers and Redhawks have won twice, with SEMO 1-1 in OVC play after losing at Tennessee Tech but winning at Austin Peay. Hood said, in assessing the Redhawks, he sees a solid team.
“They go with two quarterbacks that are both duel-threat guys. They have a really good running back (Geno Hess, nominated for the FCS Walter Payton Award as best FCS running back), really good receivers. They’re similar to (UTM),” he said. “Their front three guys on defense are ginormous. They have a linebacker (Brandon Mincey) who runs all over the field. They have playmakers at every level.
“(Head Coach Tom) Matukewicz is always going to have guys who are tough and play hard and are fundamentally sound. That’s who he is. That’s what he’s built and what he recruits for and that’s how they respond and they’re going to be tough, hard-nosed and a hard-hitting group and we’re going to have to be ready for a challenge when we go over there.”
Saturday’s matchup is set for 2 p.m.