Tennessee St. back in FCS playoffs after 14-season drought

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a youth, Rod Reed learned about the tradition of Tennessee State University football while sitting at the knee of his father, former Tigers All-American and Washington Redskins offensive lineman Robert Reed.

As a young man, Reed lived TSU football first hand as an All-American linebacker while playing for, just like his father, legendary Tigers coach John Merritt — winner of six national championships and member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Reed still holds the Tigers’ career and single-season records for tackles nearly three decades later.

And now in his fourth season as Tennessee State’s head coach, it will all come full circle Saturday when Reed guides the 17th-ranked Tigers (9-3) into the postseason for the first time since 1999 with a NCAA Division I Football Championship Series opening-round playoff game at Butler (9-3) at noon CST.

“I get a little choked up about all that,” Reed said of being the son of a TSU great who passed away five years ago while his son was still an assistant coach for the Tigers. “I talk to him every day. I know he will be really proud. 

“This is something that he wanted for me and this program for a long time, and I just wish he could be here.”

It is also something for which long-suffering fans of the traditional Historically Black Colleges program have longed. Last year, TSU returned to play some of its home games for the first time since 1999 on campus at newly-renovated Hale Stadium, while most of their home games are played at nearby LP Field — home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

“You hear the stories about John Merritt and all the great coaches who came through here,” Reed said. “I was very well-schooled on Tennessee State, I can tell you that. It’s just an honor to be mentioned with all those great coaches and players.”

Tennessee State was one of a record three Ohio Valley Conference members invited to the FCS (former Division I-AA) playoffs in the first season of the newly-expanded 24-team format. Also on Saturday, No. 20 Jacksonville State (9-3) hosts No. 16 Samford, while OVC champion and top-ranked Eastern Illinois (11-1) received a first-round bye and will host the winner of the TSU-Butler game a week from Saturday.

On Sunday, the 24-team FCS playoffs field was released, and TSU was the last team to be announced, although the Tigers received a No. 15 seed.

”I was really confident we would get in, especially when I saw Jacksonville State, an OVC team we beat and finished ahead of in the standings, was the first team announced,” Reed said. “It was nerve-wracking watching it all the way to being the last team announced. We were sitting there on pins and needles, and when our name popped up, the kids went crazy. It was pretty special for us.”

Not surprisingly since Reed was a former TSU defensive standout who once had a team record 197 tackles in a season, the Tigers feature one of the best defenses in the nation. Nationally, TSU is ranked first in third-down conversion defense (24.7 percent), fifth in total defense (278.9 yards), sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points) and eighth in interceptions (17).

In as much, TSU had four defenders named first-team All-OVC earlier this week, including junior defensive end Anthony Bass, the OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Also named were senior defensive end Antonio Harper, junior linebacker Nick Thrasher and junior defensive back Daniel Fitzpatrick, who was seventh nationally with six interceptions.

“We think we have a great defense right now,” said Bass, a product of nearby Clarksville (Tenn.) Northeast High who had 10 sacks and 14 tackles for lost yardage this season. “Most of us have been playing together for four years or three years, and we are all in one accord when we get out there on that field.

“I think it is how we play together. I think our experience of playing together and being successful are why we are considered one of the better defenses in the country.”

Co-champion of the Pioneer Football League the past two seasons, Butler features senior quarterback Matt Lancaster, who is averaging 239.9 passing yards per game and has scored 31 touchdowns (19 passing, 11 rushing). Defensively, the Bulldogs rank seventh nationally with 30 takeaways.

“They are a very disciplined team,” Reed said of Butler, a basketball mid-major power in Indianapolis, Ind., that didn’t form a football program until 1993. “You watch them on tape, they don’t make a whole lot of mistakes. We have our work cut out for us. 

“We have to go up there and play some disciplined football. We just have to go out there and control both sides of the line of scrimmage, and I think we’ll be OK.”

Reed was non-committal about who will start at quarterback for the Tigers. Returning starter Michael German, who passed for 2,751 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as a sophomore, was suspended the first two games of this season and hasn’t played since injuring his left non-throwing shoulder in the win over Jacksonville State on Oct. 12.

Redshirt freshman Ronald Butler has played solidly at quarterback when German has not been available, passing for 1,343 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

“I really don’t know who is going to start,” Reed said of the quarterback situation. “German, if he is 100 percent, he will definitely play, if not start.”

Offensively, the Tigers have a solid running game featuring senior back Tim Broughton, who was fourth in the OVC with 1,117 rushing yards on 212 carries for a 4.9 yards per carry average. He is just the fifth Tiger in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

“This is everything for us,” Broughton said of TSU making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and doing it under Reed, a former Tigers player. “He has been like a father figure to a lot of us. That’s pretty much about he approaches us. 

“We’re his kids. He’s hard-nosed, and I think that is what a lot of us needed.” 

For the fourth-straight year, the NCAA Division I FCS championship game will be played in Frisco, Texas, at FC Dallas Stadium. The Southland Conference will serve as the host of the championship, which will be played on Saturday, January 4 at 1 p.m. CST.