Newly ranked Tigers set for showdown with FBS neighbor
The same week Tennessee State cracked the STATS FCS Top 25, its biggest challenge of the season awaits.
Sitting 25th in the poll, the Tigers make the three-mile trip to face Vanderbilt on Saturday.
"They'll throw a lot more bodies at us than we'll be able to throw at them," Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said in regards to the SEC squad's advantage in terms of depth and scholarship numbers. "We've been finding a way, and we're going to get in there and we're going to compete and keep it close and see what happens in the fourth quarter."
The Tigers last started 6-1 in 2013, and were a missed field goal away at Eastern Illinois on Oct. 8 from perhaps being undefeated heading into this contest. Despite losing starting quarterback O'Shay Ackerman-Carter to a season-ending knee injury in the third game, Tennessee State ranks 18th in the FCS averaging 36.3 points and among the leaders with a turnover margin of plus-1.67.
Senior backup quarterback Ronald Butler has thrown for 707 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for three scores over the last three games.
"We've done it really short-handedly," Reed said. "Butler has done a very admirable job of running this football team. We're still short-handed a little bit, but our guys keep finding ways to win and that's what I like about this football team."
Reed, however, is smart enough to know the task that's at hand against a FBS program - even one that's 3-4. The Commodores are 1-3 in the SEC, but have allowed 62 points in those games and are coming off a 17-16 win at Georgia last weekend.
"I'm just hoping they are still partying and celebrating that win," Reed joked.
Vanderbilt has failed to score more than 17 points in all but two games this season, but Tennessee State has yielded an average of 28.6 since opening with a 44-0 rout of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Tigers are also likely to again be without talented defensive lineman Ebenezer Ogundeko, who began his college career at Clemson.
That doesn't bode well for a defense that's allowed 455 rushing yards in the last two games. They'll need to buckle down in order to stop Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb, who posted back-to-back rushing games of at least 100 yards before being held to 48 on 19 carries against Georgia. Webb needs 350 yards to break Zac Stacy's school record of 3,143.
Though Tennessee State has its defensive issues, it ranks among the national leaders in both subdivisions with 12 interceptions. Senior cornerback and Michigan State transfer Ezra Robinson was named the Ohio Valley Conference's defensive player of the week after recording two of his four interceptions - one returned 93 yards for a touchdown - in last weekend's 35-28 win over Eastern Kentucky.
"These guys fully understand what TSU brings to the table," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "Rod Reed has done a good job assembling talent. Defensively, they've got guys on that side of the ball that make plays. We actually respect everybody. We prepare the same way for everybody we play.
The Tigers fell 38-9 in their only other meeting with Vanderbilt in 2006.