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Skyhawks’ OVC demise self-inflicted

Skyhawks’ OVC demise self-inflicted
UT Martin’s hopes for a second Ohio Valley Conference championship in three seasons came down to the final play against Eastern Kentucky.
In actuality, the Skyhawks’ fate — and chance at a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth — was decided long beforehand.
Five first-half turnovers put UTM behind the eight-ball, and Brandon Gathof blocked Tom Hansen’s 45-yard field goal on the last play of the game to secure the Colonels’ 33-31 victory Saturday at Graham Stadium.
EKU (8-3, 7-1) not only earned the 20th such OVC title in the illustrious history of its program but also the automatic postseason berth that is a perk of winning the league’s championship.
The Skyhawks (8-4, 6-2), meanwhile, were left on the outside looking in as they were passed over for an at-large playoff invite to the 16-team tournament.
Gathof played a huge role in Eastern’s victory, returning the second of his two first-half interceptions of UTM’s Cade Thompson 50 yards for a touchdown in addition to his last-snap heroics.
The Skyhawks had driven from their own 20 to the EKU 27 in 64 seconds with Thompson completing three passes to Mike Hicks and a fourth-down 17-yarder to Dexter Anoka to set up Hansen’s ill-fated try at making up for a horrible day by the team’s kicking unit.
UT Martin’s heartbreak was made even worse in that it dominated the contest statistically — outgaining the Colonels all totaled 501-172.
Four Thompson first-half interceptions, though, overshadowed the Skyhawk quarterback tying the school record for touchdown passes (24) in a season and a 419-yard passing day.
Equally as damaging to UTM’s end result was a kicking game that not only had the final three-pointer blocked, but also had a PAT batted down and returned for two points by the Colonels, and another point-after that hit the upright and bounded away no-good.
Skyhawk head coach Jason Simpson was at a loss to explain his team’s collapse in critical areas afterward.
“I have no explanations for us not taking care of the ball because we pretty much have all season,” Simpson said. “The special teams mistakes are sometimes more maligned than others and, when you miss a kick, it gets you off cycle and you have to go for two.
“You have to play well in all three areas — offense, defensea and special teams to beat good teams like Eastern Kentucky. I can’t say the best team won today, but I can say the team that played the best won.”
The Colonels made the most of their first-half opportunities, cashing in on four turnovers for 24 points despite mustering just 53 yards of total offense on the day.
Quarterback Allan Holland carried a one-yard sneak into the endzone and hit Cody Watts with a 25-yard TD pass in addition to Gathof’s aforementioned pick-six.
Thompson, who completed 35-of-61 passes in all, threw the first of his two touchdown tosses to Hicks — a five-yarder — for UTM’s only first-half points.
Thompson and Hicks hooked up again for six from three yards out before the second half was three minutes old, but the aforementioned kicking game collapse on the PAT put points on the board, too, for the Colonels.
Andre Evans scooped up a blocked Hansen conversion and darted 87 yards to the endzone to make it 26-12.
The two clubs then traded scores — Trace McDermott running one yard to paydirt for UTM and Holland and Watts playing pitch and catch for a 25-yard TD — to keep the visitors in front by a two-touchdown margin (33-19).
Hansen then made field goals of 22 and 38 yards, the second with a little over six minutes to play that drew the Skyhawks within 33-25.
The opportunistic UT Martin defense then made another in what has been a long list of big plays this season as Dorsett Pendleton scooped up a fumble and ran 44 yards for a touchdown — the sixth such touchdown fumble return for the Skyhawks defense this season which adds to their NCAA record.
Still down by two points, though, due to their kicking game shortcomings, UTM was forced to go for the conversion and failed when a Thompson pass was incomplete with 4:24 to play.
Simpson said Thompson’s first-half struggles were part the quarterback’s fault and part the reason of good plays by the Colonel secondary.
“Cade made some bad throws at times, and he was in bad spots at times having to always throw the ball because we were so far behind.
“I’ll say I’m proud of the way we fought until the end, though, and proud of where our program is right now. We’ll have 22 seniors back next year, and I’m excited about that.”
Among those returnees for next season include Thompson, Hicks, who caught 12 passes for 125 yards, and Roren Thomas (8-112).
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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