When Southeast Missouri beat Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago, people started paying attention to Tim Billings and his Indians. This past week Southeast Missouri knocked off Tennessee State University, and all of sudden, people are casting votes to rank the Indians among the best in Division I-AA football.
Billings, who earned his reputation by helping Marshall become the winningest college football program in the 1990s, has turned Southeast Missouri into an Ohio Valley Conference contender for the first time.
Contenders aren’t the typical fare for homecoming, but Tennessee-Martin will get the task of stopping SEMO’s two-game winning streak at 2 p.m. Saturday when the two teams square off at Hardy M. Graham Stadium in Martin for an OVC homecoming tilt.
SEMO enters the game with a 4-2 record and a 1-0 mark in the OVC. The Skyhawks sport a 2-4 record and come into the game battered from a 58-3 setback against perennial league power Eastern Kentucky.
“We have a great amount of confidence after beating MTSU,” Billings said. “We had a good turnaround. We didn’t understand how to win but we can win. We have to learn how to handle winning now.”
Billings said he wouldn’t compare his team to Eastern Kentucky or Eastern Illinois. “Our goal right now is to try and be competitive. We’re everybody’s homecoming game, we’re even Tennessee-Martin’s homecoming game.”
The Indians must be playing with a lot of confidence because they have the numbers and personnel to show.
Wide receiver Willie Ponder, who was added to the Payton Award watch list last week, had eight catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee State. He leads the OVC in receiving and his 686 total receiving yards lead the nation.
Quarterback Jack Tomco completed 25of 36 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee State. He’s among the nation’s top 20 in passing efficiency.
Sophomore receiver Chris NesSmith had four punt returns for 53 yards, including a 44 yard return for a touchdown last week. He also had five catches for 47 yards and a TD.
The running back tandem of Corey Kinsey and Keiki Misipeka is averaging better than 162 yards per game. Kinsey is the OVC’s third-leading rusher, while Misipeka ranks eighth in the league.
“Right now we’re playing with a lot of confidence and I think that is really going to help us out,” Billings said.
That combination of talent and success may be enough for SEMO, but Billings has noticed that the Skyhawks have also made improvements from a year ago.
“First of all, Sam’s done a great job there. They (Tennessee-Martin) are so much bigger and stronger and they have a lot better athletes than they did in the past. What will be tough for us is that they’ve had a opportunity to beat us the last two times that we played while I have been here,” Billings said.
“They were ahead of us last year in the fourth quarter and we had to fake a punt to beat them. One thing about those guys is they truly believe they could beat us. They have a lot of confidence in playing against us.”
Besides the Skyhawks’ confidence, Billings and the Indians are concerned with the Skyhawks’ ability to dominate time of possession. “It’s a tough situation going there with what they do,” Billings said.
“They do a great job of keeping the ball and keeping your offense off the field. So, when your offense does get out there they have to make something happen. We got to try to keep the ball ourselves and with a team like that we got to get ahead of them.”
With the exception of one game, Arkansas State, the Skyhawks have won the time of possession battle. This past week against Eastern Kentucky the Skyhawks managed to hang onto the ball almost six more minutes than the host Colonels.
McCorkle has been happy with his team, but he said the improvement and progress that his team made was not evident last week at Eastern Kentucky.
“Eastern Kentucky is right there at the top of the league,” McCorkle said.
“They’ve got an awful good football team. I wasn’t very pleased up there. I don’t think our kids played with the velocity and aggressiveness that they have sometimes used in the past. When we played against Arkansas State, we played as hard as we could have since we’ve been here. I do think we have improved.”
McCorkle says the keys to pulling off the upset are keeping the football away from SEMO’s offense; avoiding turnovers; and keeping the score close.
The Skyhawks are ranked second in the OVC for pass efficiency defense, and have picked off a conference-high seven passes so far this season. Senior Perez Boyd leads the Skyhawk defense with four interceptions and his nine tackles per game average.
Establishing the running game for the Skyhawks might be tough against SEMO. The Indians are second in the conference in scoring defense and they limited TSU to 134 yards of rushing. The Skyhawks experienced offensive woes a week ago at Eastern Kentucky where they managed only 111 yards for both passing and rushing.
While Billings calls this game against Tennessee-Martin the biggest in the country because his team is playing in it, McCorkle thinks his team has a shot at winning it.
“I think it’s possible,” McCorkle said. “We have a good group of players that work hard, but we’ve got to get the numbers that the other people have. When we get someone banged up or hurt, we don’t have anybody to go to.”
Courtesy of Sports Information