By KEVIN WEAKS
UT Martin was big on defense for three quarters and then pulled off a big-time play late in the fourth.
Quentin Sims pulled in a 33-yard pass from Derek Carr on a 4th-and-2 play, scoring with 1:10 remaining in the game to finally put away Tennessee State for a 35-26 win Saturday night in front of 6,322 fans at Graham Stadium.
The win finished UTM’s regular season with an 8-3 overall record and 6-2 OVC mark. The Tigers, who came in ranked No. 23 in the FCS poll, closed the year at 8-3 and 5-2.
And, while the Skyhawks were able to knock TSU out of consideration for an FS playoff berth, the win was not enough to get UTM a spot, either. The selection show on Sunday included only one Ohio Valley Conference school, league champion Eastern Illinois.
Following the game, UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson made a plea for his team to make the 20-team playoff field, but he was also realistic in how last week’s stunning 45-44 loss at Tennessee Tech had hurt his team’s chances.
“We can take this team anywhere in the country and represent this conference very well,” Simpson said. “We can score, we have a fifth-year quarterback who, in my opinion, should be an All-American. We might not get that chance, but if we do, we’ll take this team anywhere and tee it up.
“Any time you can win eight games in this league, especially when you play two FBS schools, obviously I’m very happy. I’m very happy tonight, but there is some remorse because we let one get away last seek when we controlled our own destiny.”
The Carr-to-Sims connection — one of the most lethal in the OVC this season — that ultimately knocked off the Tigers in the game’s waning seconds was the result of one of the season’s most gutsy calls.
Having seen a seemingly safe 28-6 lead after three periods disappear behind three Tennessee State touchdowns, the Skyhawks still held a slim 28-26 lead when Tiger quarterback Michael German could not convert a two-point conversion pass that would have tied the game with still 1:55 to play in the game.
UTM then simply wanted to run out as much clock as possible. But, Jason McNair was stopped for a two-yard loss, which was followed by TSU calling its final time-out. A penalty, that Tennessee State declined, stopped the clock on McNair’s six-yard run, and then McNair was forced out of bounds after a four-yard gain at the TSU 33 to set up the critical fourth-down play.
Sims took off down the UTM sideline, pulled away from a grab by cornerback Steven Godbolt (who drew an interference call on the play) and plucked Carr’s pass from the sky for a touchdown with 70 seconds remaining in the game.
After a lengthy discussion on the field, UTM declined the penalty, and Cody Sandlin’s point-after gave the Skyhawks a secure nine-point advantage. The Tigers moved across midfield, but J’Vontez Blackmon intercepted a German pass at the four-yard-line to end the game.
“You’re too far away for a legitimate field goal, there’s 10 in the box because we’re in two tights, and we have the best receiver in the league in 1-on-1 coverage against the best corner in the league,” Simpson said of his reasoning for calling the pass play. “He (Godbolt) didn’t think it as coming, he grabbed our guy, but Sims ran through it and made the catch. Sometimes, it’s not about the Xs and Os but the Jimmys and Joes, and we have a pretty good Jimmy at quarterback and pretty good Joe at wide receiver.”
The ‘Jimmy’ finished his record-breaking season with 276 yards on 21-of-40 passing, while the ‘Joe’ totaled 176 yards on eight catches. All three UTM touchdown passes were thrown by Carr and caught by Sims.
That combination got started early, too.
After both teams opened with 3-and-out possessions, UTM immediately took advantage of a 10-yard Tiger punt with Carr hitting Sims for a 32-yard score with 10:58 to play in the first quarter. UT Martin was back on the board nearly three-and-a-half minutes later, that same twosome following another TSU punt with a 50-yard strike at 7:34.
While Tennessee State got on the board with field goals of 29 and 22 yards by Jamin Godfrey, UTM pulled out to a 28-6 lead by the end of three periods on a 75-yard punt return by McNair and a one-yard run by D.J. McNeil, the McNeil score coming as a result of an interception.
TSU finished with four turnovers on the day, part of a defensive effort that had held the Tigers in check for three quarters. The three scoring drives in the fourth, covering 62, 66 and 70 yards, helped TSU ultimately win the statistical battle with 477 total yards to UTM’s 375.
“We changed some things up,” Simpson said. “We went to more four-man front looks because we’d been frustrated the last couple of weeks. I’m proud of our defense for working through that. We did some things they hadn’t seen, so we got them into a lot of third downs and held. When you do that, you’re going to hold teams under 30 points. Now, if you’d told me we would win the game with 375 yards of offense, then I would’ve have thought we had 12 turnovers because they’re a good team.”
TSU’s fourth quarter rally was led by German, who battled through an ankle injury to finish with 355 yards on 28-of-44 passing. He kept the final TD drive alive with a 10-yard run on 4th-and-4 and a 17-yard scamper on 2nd-and-12.
Published in The Messenger 11.19.12