After two deaths in a seven-day span, Tennessee State had to get back on the field.
For more than 45 minutes Saturday, it appeared the Tigers were still somewhere else. With their season on the line, they put together an incredible final quarter that mirrored much of a spectacular season.
It wasn’t enough. TSU fell short of a miracle comeback in a 35-26 road loss to Tennessee-Martin in the regular-season finale. After winning their first seven and looking destined for their first trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs since 1999, the Tigers dropped three of four and were left out of the 20-team bracket.
TSU (8-3, 4-3 Ohio Valley Conference) played with heavy hearts. Nearly two weeks ago, freshman Wayne Jones collapsed and died during practice. Exactly a week later, former legendary Tigers coach Joe Gilliam Sr. died at the age of 89.
It was especially a tough couple weeks for Reed. Not only was he stunned by the death of Jones but he lost a mentor in Gilliam. The former defensive coordinator recruited and coached Reed, a former All-American linebacker.
“I talked to these guys all week about focusing in light of everything that happened,” Reed said. “I knew it was going to be a tough job trying to get their focus regained and concentrate on our football game. But that’s our job.”
TSU turned the ball over four times and gave up a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown to let the Skyhawks (8-3, 6-2) jump out to a 28-6 lead after three quarters.
The Tigers weren’t going to let a magical season end with a thud, though. Sophomore quarterback Michael German played through an ankle sprain and tossed three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. His last, an 18-yard strike to tight end A.C. Leonard, cut the deficit to 28-26 with 1:55 left. Going for two, the snap went low to German, who hung onto the ball and took a devastating sack. UT-Martin recovered TSU’s onside kick attempt and scored a game-clinching touchdown with 70 seconds left.
It was not the sort of ending the Tigers expected after such an amazing start to the 2012 season, which began 7-0 for the first time since 1999. Even so, TSU can take comfort in the realization the program is on an obvious rise, just two years removed from a winless conference season.
“I think we’re making strides,” Reed said. “I felt we were three quarters of the way there ... 8-3 is nothing to sneeze at.”
• Austin Peay 38, Tennessee Tech 31: The Govs (2-9, 1-7 Ohio Valley) tried to give it away. But the Golden Eagles (2-9, 1-7) didn’t have enough miracles to pull off an amazing comeback. Devin Stark caught three touchdowns as Austin Peay led 31-0 at halftime. Rising Tech playmaker Darian Stone mounted a furious rally, throwing for 245 yards and rushing for 102 yards, to pull the Golden Eagles with seven. But their comeback fell short, despite recovering an onside kick late. The defense stood tall for the Govs to end a 12-game OVC losing streak.
• Middle Tennessee State 20, South Alabama 12: The Blue Raiders (7-3, 5-1 Sun Belt) can play defense, too. Led by four takeaways, MTSU won a defensive struggle for its fifth road win – the most since 1992. Logan Kilgore tossed a pair of touchdowns and rushed 16 yards for a huge third-down conversion to run out the clock.
BY THE NUMBERS
3 – takeaways by MTSU safety Jajuan Harley. The junior intercepted two passes and forced a fumble.
10 – receiving touchdowns this season by Da’Rick Rogers, which ties a Tech record. The junior transfer from Tennessee was a great pickup for the Golden Eagles. He caught 61 passes for 893 yards.
333 – combined all-purpose yards by Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy and Jordan Matthews. Stacy rushed for 85 yards and picked up 72 of his 86 receiving yards on a screen pass. Matthews caught seven passes for 115 yards and added a 47-yard run for his first career rushing touchdown.
355 – career-high passing yards by TSU quarterback Michael German. The sophomore also set personal bests against UT-Martin with 28 completions on 44 attempts.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Austin Peay quarterback Jake Ryan
The senior ended his collegiate career by guiding the Govs to a victory, which was all too rare this season. He completed 27 of 38 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns as Austin Peay snapped a 12-game Ohio Valley Conference losing streak. Ryan, who was named the OVC’s Co-Offensive Player of the Week, connected with Devin Stark three times for scores and capped the season with 18 touchdowns. Sixteen came in the last three games against just three interceptions. Ryan, a Knoxville native, is only the second Govs quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards and ranks second with 497 all-time completions.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“We did everything wrong that we could in the first half to try to lose the game. I don’t think we played ball until the fourth quarter.” – TSU coach Rod Reed
For the second straight year, Vanderbilt (7-4) ends the regular season at Wake Forest. A win gives the Commodores their first eight-win season since 1982. The Demon Deacons (5-6) are fighting for bowl eligibility. ... After the firing of Derek Dooley and a third straight losing season guaranteed, Tennessee (4-7, 0-7 SEC) doesn’t have to much play for as Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) comes to town. ... MTSU aims to snap a six-game losing streak against visiting Troy. With a win, the Blue Raiders set up a huge regular-season finale showdown against Arkansas State. The winner captures the Sun Belt Conference crown.