By KEVIN WEAKS
UT Martin didn’t fade in the second half against this Eastern.
In fact, the Skyhawks might have been even stronger.
A week after seeing a lead disappear after intermission at home against Eastern Kentucky, UTM piled on the points and celebrated homecoming in style with a 51-37 thrashing of Eastern Illinois at Graham Stadium on Saturday.
The win keeps UT Martin in the thick of the Ohio Valley Conference race, now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the conference. EIU, which came in with one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, is now 3-3 and 2-1.
UTM bounced back by outscoring the league’s best offense and then overcoming a season-long growing list of injuries that added more during the game
Despite being far behind the Panthers in total yards (616-381) and total offensive plays (103-68), UT Martin put up 51 points and fought off a couple of EIU challenges with big plays.
“I would have thought we had more plays, but they do a good job,” UTM head coach Jason Simpson said. “It’s a high-risk system, but they’ve been managing it up to this point. That teams spread you out, so you have to decide what you want to take away. Of course, I didn’t like giving up 600 yards. But, to give up 37 points when they’ve been scoring 49, we’ll take it.”
The Panthers entered as the OVC’s best team in passing, total and scoring offense. And, while EIU exceeded its season averages with 616 total yards and 428 passing yards, it also gave away possession five times with two interceptions and three fumbles.
UTM, meanwhile, did not have any turnovers, came up with several big special teams plays and sacked Eastern quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo five times.
“Turnovers were the biggest thing,” Simpson said. “They had three fumbles and two interceptions. And, then when you get a kickoff run back against you, that’s kind of like six. Special teams play was the key. We ran a kickoff back and almost ran a punt back. We kept them in long fields and us in short fields.”
UTM was “special” literally from the opening kick as Kevin Barfield took the game’s first play 93 yards for a score. For the game, UTM had six kick returns for 155 yards to just 26 yards on four returns by Eastern. The Skyhawks also brought back three punts for 67 yards, including a 49-yarder by Jason McNair that set up the Skyhawks’ last score of the day. UTM’s average starting field position was its own 43, while the EIU started on average at its own 22.
Eastern Illinois also left points on the field with an interception in the end zone, a fumble on the goal line and a missed point-after kick. In addition, Fred Flenorl blocked a PAT that was picked up and returned for two points by Thad Williams, turning what could have been a 21-20 UTM lead into a 23-19 advantage.
Flenorl made the hit Garoppolo at the goal line with five seconds to play in the half that forced the fumble, but it also stopped play for a serious injury. Flenorl injured himself on the hit, suffering a major concussion. Play was stopped as he was taken away by ambulance and then airlifted to Jackson. Reports from UTM indicated that he had regained feeling in his extremities before being taken off the field.
It was the second consecutive week a UTM player had to be taken off the field in that matter, following Tevin Barksdale’s injury against Eastern Kentucky.
“We’ve faced a lot of injuries,” Simpson said. “So, we’re very fortunate to come out with the win. Being banged up, sometimes you just have to put a band-aid over it and go. And, when I say that, I’m talking about our team, not the individual players. It might not always be pretty, but we just have to find a way to put a game plan together each week to score about 28 points, because our defense will hold people.”
UTM spent the afternoon building leads and then fighting off Panther challenges.
Barfield’s kickoff return for a score was followed by a one-yard TD run by Garoppolo. EIU missed the point-after, however, and then Derek Carr threw TD passes of 18 yards to Jeremy Butler and 29 yards to Barfield as UTM put up 21 points in the first period.
Jake Walker scored on a pair of two-yard runs to get Eastern back in it, but the two-point return by Williams opened the door for three Skyhawk touchdowns and a 44-19 lead with 7:51 to play in the third quarter.
DJ McNeil scored on a four-yard run, and then Carr, who was 29-of-38 for 312 yards, threw an eight-yard TD pass to Quentin Sims and a 43-yard score to Butler. Sims finished with nine catches for 101 yards, while Butler caught six passes for 98 yards. Carr is just one TD pass shy of tying the school’s all-time career mark of 48, held by Cade Thompson (2007-09).
Eastern got within 44-30 early in the fourth, but the Skyhawk defense followed with two big three-and-out stops, with a sack in each. McNeil then put it away with a four-yard run at 4:53. Eastern’s final score, coming at 1:24, did nothing more than lower the point spread and pad Garoppolo’s stats. He finished 36-of-55 for 428 yards, but his interceptions (2) matched his TD passes.
Published in The Messenger 10.8.12