Surging Skyhawks quietly going about their business in the Ohio Valley
(STATS) – The top three teams in the Ohio Valley Conference are undefeated in league play. The bottom five all have losing records within the conference.
Then there’s UT Martin, sitting right where preseason prognosticators expected it to be – at least for the moment.
Fourth in the league and a winner of three in a row, UT Martin (4-2, 3-1) quietly sits behind 3-0 frontrunners Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois while maybe not receiving the national recognition the other three are used to garnering.
Jacksonville State holds the top spot in the STATS FCS Poll, EKU is 13th and EIU is starting to play like the perennial power it’s been.
"I certainly do believe we are flying under the radar," said UT Martin coach Jason Simpson, whose team did receive 33 votes in this week’s poll. "That’s why we were picked fourth in the league under the other top three teams. Until we beat them, which we’ve done, we will continue to be the dark horse."
The Skyhawks dropped two of their first three but put a scare into JSU by rallying from 28 points down before falling 48-41 on Sept. 26. Since then, they’ve outscored Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State and Austin Peay 103-45 during a three-game win streak.
Those three victories also helped UT Martin secure its second straight Sgt. York Trophy. The award is handed out to the winner of the combined games between the league’s four Tennessee-based schools.
"Confidence is high," Simpson said. "I think we are still learning about ourselves. We know a lot obviously and I know that this is a good football team, which has really grown to be a team and not a bunch of individual performers.
"We don’t have any superstars, but when they are together, that’s when the energy and confidence builds which gives us a chance to win on Saturdays."
Looking to win four straight for the second consecutive season, UT Martin has recently been paced by a defense that didn’t allow more than 14 points nor 296 total yards in each of the last three contests.
That defense will be put to the test Saturday against Murray State (2-4, 1-2). Despite the Racers’ losing record, quarterback KD Humphries leads the FCS in completions (192), attempts (290) and passing yards (2,106). He passed for 425 yards and five touchdowns during Murray’s 62-38 loss to the Skyhawks last season.
"You have to finish strong in October and make that playoff push in November," Simpson said.
Offensively, senior Jarod Neal has thrown all 17 of his touchdowns and been picked off once in the last five games. He’s also been sacked twice this season.
"Our confidence level is high, but not so high that we think we can come in here and walk over people," Neal said. "Our opponents are too good for us to think like that."
Following the rivalry game with Murray State, the Skyhawks visit Arkansas and Eastern Kentucky before hosting EIU and closing with a road date at Southeast Missouri. Continued success against that strong slate would not only raise UT Martin’s profile within the FCS, but certainly help its standing within the conference.
However, the Skyhawks don’t seem too concerned with pleasing anybody but themselves.
"The other teams are getting all of the looks right now, but that’s OK," said receiver Rod Wright, who has 36 receptions for 528 yards and leads the OVC with seven TD catches. "Our focus is to win that week, then move on to the next and the rest will take care of itself."
Eastern Kentucky junior receiver Devin Borders is five shy of matching the FCS record of 17 blocked kicks (field goals, point-after attempts and punts) set by McNeese State’s Leonard Smith from 1980-82. His seven blocked field goals are three off the FCS record also held by Smith.
Second in the FCS with 58 receptions, Tennessee Tech’s Brock McCoin is 10 off the school’s single-season record.
Riding a 12-game conference winning streak, Jacksonville State is the only school in the FCS to rank among the top 10 in both rushing offense and rushing defense. The Gamecocks are fifth with an average of 293.8 yards and eighth in yielding 93.0 per contest.