Williams AP

Positive plays were few and far between for Murray State Saturday against Austin Peay. However, Murray State Head Coach Dean Hood said he was actually pleased with the performance of quarterback DJ Williams, who is shown finishing off a run that picked up a first down and cost an Austin Peay player his helmet in the process.

MURRAY – The best thing that can happen to a team that had Murray State’s experience Saturday in its annual homecoming football game with bitter Ohio Valley Conference rival Austin Peay is to win the next game.

That will not be easy this week for the Racers, who were beaten by the Governors, 47-6, in a game where the Governors seemed faster on the field from the opening kickoff. Now, Murray State is facing a team renowned for speed — Tennessee State — who also happens to be as hot as anyone in the OVC, having won three straight conference games under first-year Head Coach and future NFL Hall of Famer Eddie George. 

“They’re a doing a great job right now, so it’s going to be a big challenge for our guys to bounce back,” Murray State Head Coach Dean Hood said Tuesday during his weekly OVC Zoom press conference as he and his team still tried to assess how things went so wrong Saturday at Roy Stewart Stadium.

“There were some schematic things, but it’s just mind boggling,” he said, comparing Saturday’s disaster to another head-scratching result at OVC leader UT Martin two weeks earlier. On that occasion, the Racers had beaten OVC foe Eastern Illinois the previous week in Murray only to be outscored by 31 points in the first half against the Skyhawks in a 48-24 loss. 

The Racers then bounced back from that defeat to edge Southeast Missouri, 32-31, on Aaron Baum’s field goal as time expired as the Racers erased a 15-point deficit in the final quarter.

“We had a huge letdown at UT Martin (from the EIU win) and, as we were watching film of (the UTM) game, you saw some things. There wasn’t a lot of excitement on the sideline, we had guys not running as fast as they probably could, we had dropped balls, we had undisciplined penalties, things like that,” Hood said, contrasting those observances with what was transpiring in Saturday’s loss to Peay. 

“In this game, we had some defensive offsides and some of those types of things, but this was overall different. Our kids were flying around, they were hitting well, there was energy on the sideline and, as you watch the film, you’re trying to figure out how this happened.”

In the post-mortum examination of the Peay loss, Hood said one word seems to dominate, and it is one that should encourage Racers fans — accountability.

“The encouraging part about our guys is we know that we’re all in this together,” he said of how the accountability theme applied not only to the players. “There were plenty of coaching errors, myself included, to go around. It was not just the kids. We’ve got to do a better job coaching and executing and something we’re finding out is that it’s not necessarily what we’re doing, it’s how we’re doing it.

“There’s no denying it either. There’s been a lot of, ‘Hey Coach, I was in the wrong gap there,’ or ‘Yep, you told me to do this at the time it presented itself,’ so that’s a really encouraging thing. Our guys are shouldering the responsibility of their mistakes and the coaches are doing the same.”

Murray State came out of the UTM debacle and promptly delivered a strong first half that left the Racers leading by a 16-10 score at the halftime break in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. SEMO would outscore the Racers 21-0 in the third quarter, but the Racers regained command in the final 15 minutes to score two touchdowns and Baum’s field goal. 

That day in Cape also saw the debut of freshman quarterback DJ Williams in a starter’s role and he played very well. He was given his second start against Peay and, while his numbers may not have been as strong as they were against SEMO, Hood said his performance was not poor.

“Really, DJ played pretty well, as far as getting the ball to where it needed to be and making the right checks and making good decisions to pull the ball down and use his legs to pick up positive yardage. I thought he had a decent game,” the coach said of Williams, who has been in the saddle of the Racer offense since the second half at Martin when he took over for junior Preston Rice.

Hood said Tuesday that Rice’s issues with a shoulder problem became  a matter that was too big to ignore at Martin.

“I believe he got hit in the second half (of the Racers’ third game of the season at Bowling Green) and, after that, he kept trying to go, trying to go, and, at UTM, it finally got exposed to the point we, as a coaching staff, had to say, ‘Hey! He just can’t do this anymore right now. We’ve got to do something different instead of trying to let him tough it out because of who he is.’”

Rice was selected to the All-OVC First Team for his efforts during the spring season, where he helped the Racers to a surprising 5-2 record and within 14 points of an OVC title. 

“Preston was better (Monday) than he’s been the last couple of weeks, and in those last couple of weeks, he couldn’t throw the ball,” Hood said. “So he’s looking more like himself.”

The Racers also lost the services of one of its biggest playmakers early in Saturday’s loss when senior receiver Malik Honeycutt left the game in the first quarter after taking a shot to his hip. Hood said Tuesday that Honeycutt has a hip pointer and it is not known if he will be able to play this Saturday against TSU in Nashville. 

“He’s a tough kid. He’s a veteran guy who’s been through a lot of bangs and bruises, but a hip pointer is one of those things that doesn’t sound like a big deal, kind of like turf toe, but it’s real painful and can take a little bit of time to work through,” Hood said.

This Saturday’s experience will be unique for the Racers as they will play on the field of Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. TSU plays several of its home games at that venue each season, as opposed to its on-campus facility, Hale Stadium, which is much smaller. 

However, the Tigers have been playing like a team worthy of playing at an NFL Stadium. The Tigers are 4-3 overall, 2-1 in OVC play. They are undefeated in October, having beaten Peay by two points in Clarksville, Tennessee, then edging Tennessee Tech in overtime in Nashville, before dominating EIU in Charleston, Illinois in their last outing. 

The Tigers are led by running back Devon Starling, who has three 100-yard games to his credit this season.

Game time is set for 5 p.m. Saturday.