Special team miscues, turnovers hurt Skyhawks
Stephanie Sturgis - Press Sports Editor
"I don't think the best team necessarily won, but the team that played the best today won," Skyhawk head coach Jason Simpson said after the loss.
With the OVC title and an automatic berth in the Football Championship Series playoffs at stake, UT Martin (8-4, 6-2) controlled its own destiny when the game kicked off Saturday at Hardy M. Graham Stadium in Martin, but four interceptions, a fumble, a blocked point-after kick and a missed point-after kick in the first half put the Skyhawks in a huge hole.
Even with the miscues, the Skyhawks fought back. A 44-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Dorsett Pendleton with 4:24 left in the game cut the EKU lead to 33-31. The Skyhawks opted to go for two points and a tie after the touchdown, but quarterback Cade Thompson's pass to the back of the end zone was knocked down leaving UT Martin trailing by two.
"When we miss an extra point, we get off cycle and it totally messes up the point-after decisions. We have had below-average special teams this season, and although all of the units made mistakes, some mistakes stood out more than others," Simpson said.
With its lead cut to two, Eastern Kentucky (8-3, 7-1) picked up one first down before the UTM defense held and forced a punt.
Starting at their own 20-yard line with 1:08 left in the game and trailing by two, the Skyhawk offense went to work using short patterns near the sideline to stop the clock. Thompson twice found Mike Hicks on out routes for first down yardage to the UTM 45-yard line, but three consecutive incompletions set up fourth down.
With 19 seconds left in the game, the UTM quarterback found Dexter Anoka over the middle for 17 yards down to the EKU 38 to keep the drive alive. A spike stopped the clock with 12.9 ticks left.
Hicks made another grab along the sideline for 11 yards down to the Colonels' 27. UTM handed the ball to Brandyn Young for a 1-yard gain before calling a timeout to send out the field goal unit for a 45-yard field goal attempt and the win with 4.9 seconds left on the clock.
Tom Hansen's field goal try was blocked by a leaping Brandon Gathof and recovered by the Colonels to end the game with Eastern Kentucky clinging to a 33-31 victory.
Hansen did connect on field goals of 22 and 38 yards in the second half.
When the game started the UT Martin defense immediately asserted itself, as the Colonels lost 10 yards on their first three plays thanks to a sack by Nate Wilson and a penalty. The Skyhawk defense limited EKU to 172 total yards on offense during the game.
The Skyhawk turnover bug bit hard after that as the first three UTM drives ended with a fumble sandwiched between two interceptions. As a result of those turnovers, the Colonels collected 17 points. The three scoring drives started at the UTM 31-, 25- and 19-yard lines.
The Skyhawks got on the scoreboard with a Thompson to Hicks 5-yard pass with 11:11 left in the first half to finish an 11-play, 80-yard drive. Hansen's kick struck the right upright to keep EKU's lead at 17-6.
UTM's defense forced another punt, but Gathof picked off a Thompson pass and returned it 50 yards for a Colonel score. Taylor Long's PAT extended the Skyhawk deficit to 24-6 with 8:40 to play in the first half.
Still trailing 24-6 when the third quarter began, Thompson found Hicks for his second TD pass of the game, but Hansen's kick was blocked. EKU's Andre Evans scooped up the ball and returned it for two points to keep UTM trailing 26-12.
UTM cut the gap to 26-19 on Trace McDermott's 1-yard TD run, but the Colonels answered with a 30-yard scoring pass from Allan Holland to Cody Watts with 3:29 left in the third quarter.