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UTM experiencing free-fall after record-setting season

UTM experiencing free-fall after record-setting season
UT Martin has fallen from the top floor to the basement of the Ohio Valley Conference in a short amount of time.

Last season’s league co-champions, the Skyhawks were relegated to the OVC cellar and remained winless this year in five games with a 13-10 loss to Tennessee Tech Thursday night.

The setback marks the worst start to a season since 1998 — the last of a three-year stretch that saw UTM go 2-31 during that span — and comes on the heels of last season’s 9-3 overall mark that saw the Skyhawks make the Division I-AA playoffs as a result of their OVC title run.

Tech (4-1, 2-1), meanwhile, is enjoying life at the other end of that spectrum.

Thursday’s win was the Golden Eagles’ fourth straight since a season-opening loss to 20th-ranked Eastern Illinois and marks the first time in six years they’ve strung together that type of success.

Second-year UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson indicated afterward there would likely be personnel changes when the Skyhawks next play — at Jacksonville State next Thursday.

“I’m not going to elaborate yet, but it’s time to give other guys opportunities to make plays,” the coach said. “You’re putting guys in positions to make plays and they’re not making them.”

UTM managed just 269 total yards against the league’s No. 1-ranked defense and now has gone seven quarters without an offensive touchdown. Receiver Roren
Thomas dropped a sure TD pass for the second straight week, and the Skyhawks’ only trip to paydirt Thursday came when Jesse Burton returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a TD — his second in as many years against Tech and the third such feat of his career.

Other than that, UT Martin managed only a 31-yard field goal by Tom Hansen late in the first half that temporarily accounted for a 10-3 lead.

Backup Golden Eagle quarterback Josh Lowery, subbing for injured starter Les Sweeney and making his first collegiate start, marched his team 57 yards over an 82-second span and tossed a five-yard TD pass to Matt Solima on the next-to-last play of the half to forge a 10-all deadlock.

Tech then took the third period kickoff and moved 62 yards in 13 plays before stalling at the Skyhawk 17 and calling on Kraemer for a 34-yard field goal that was true and provided the ultimate winning margin.

UTM looked as if it was on a defining game-deciding drive in the fourth period, having taken over at its own one and marched all the way to the TTU 20 over a span of nine minutes while using 19 plays. Five times during the sequence the Skyhawks converted critical fourth downs, quarterback Dexter Anoka twice throwing successfully to move the chains and scrambling for a third first down.

Both Don Chapman and Marcus Dawson moved the chains, too, on separate runs before the drive reached the Tech 20 with UT Martin needing just one yard for another set of downs.

Chapman, though, was stonewalled on third down, and Dawson was knocked back from a pile on fourth down after a timeout was called and potential game-tying field goal was foregone with 5:27 to play.

The second of two Taron Ryce’s interceptions with 1:02 left ended the Skyhawks’ last-ditch rally.

“We just didn’t see the hole, that’s all. I think it was blocked OK,” Simpson said of his team’s turned-away effort. “I didn’t want to miss the field goal and, even then, had we made it, we’d have just been tied up.

“I just felt it was the right decision to go for it. We just didn’t execute.”

The UTM defense did put the clamps on Tech’s injury-depleted attack that came in averaging 43 ppg, holding the visitors to just 276 total yards and a season-low point total. Dontrel Miller had seven solo tackles and 11 in all to lead the Skyhawk unit.

“Right now, we’re looking for positives, and that’s two weeks in a row our defense has played well against two relatively solid offenses,” Simpson added.
Derek White, the OVC’s leading rusher, ran for 115 yards and eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game for the victors.

Chapman rushed for 97 yards to lead UTM.

Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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