After a lackluster first half, the Skyhawk football team used a 21-point third quarter to overtake a pesky Southeast Missouri State team and come away with a 28-14 road victory that stretched their winning streak to eight games.
The win, coupled with an Eastern Illinois win over Tennessee State, gave sole possession of first place in the Ohio Valley Conference to the Skyhawks.
The game-changing play came on the opening kickoff of the second half, when Skyhawk return man Jesse “Juice” Burton took the ball 100 yards to the end zone to tie the score at 7-7 and bring some life to the visitors’ sideline.
Burton’s amazing run got the second half off to a positive start for the Skyhawks, who had been unable to score in the game’s first 30 minutes.
“Juice being able to return that kickoff was huge,” said Skyhawk head coach Jason Simpson. “That gave us the energy and the burst we needed. Our guys fed off of that momentum and that got us through the second half.”
The accomplishment also earned the junior college transfer notice as the OVC specialist of the week as well as a national special teams honoree.
The play came on the heels of a disastrous end to the first half for the Skyhawks. With the ball on their own 19-yard line, the Redhawks were forced to punt. The Skyhawk defense came up big and blocked the punt but it was picked up by SEMO’s Monroe Hicks, who carried it to the Skyhawk 23-yard line.
Burton finished the game with 146 return yards, including 119 on kickoff returns and 27 on punt returns.
Six plays later, wide receiver Oge Oge caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Ballatore to break a scoreless tie and put the Panthers ahead 7-0 just six seconds before halftime.
“We talked about the block as a staff and we said ‘let’s go for it and see if we can create a turnover,’”Simpson said.
“We got the block, but it backfired on us because it went past the line of scrimmage and they were able to advance it. They were able to punch it in and they had some momentum at halftime.”
Like many Skyhawk games this season, the game featured more defense than offense. The defensive units, along with sloppy weather conditions, limited the two teams’ ability to move the ball down the field effectively.
The Skyhawks managed only 106 yards of offense in the first half but finished the game with a total of 306 yards after a strong third quarter display. Tailback Don Chapman ran for 225 yards and three scores on 36 carries. His highlight play of the game was an 81-yard scoring burst with just over a minute remaining in the game that put the game away with the Skyhawks holding atwo-touchdown advantage.
Defensively, the Skyhawks actually allowed 307 yards in the game but forced the Redhawks to punt the ball eight times and gave up only 11 first downs. The Skyhawk offense collected 16 first downs in the game.
Part of the reason for the defense’s struggles was the absence of linebacker Rayvon Sims and the fact that Dante Harrold played at less than 100 percent.
Injuries affected the Skyhawks on both sides of the ball as wide receiver Jamaal Akbar and fullback Marcus Dawson could not play as a result of injuries suffered during the Skyhawks’ win over Eastern Illinois.
“Then we lose Alex Atkins and Adam Hansen in the first half,” Simpson said. “Luckily they came back in the second half and played for us the best they could. There were some things they couldn’t do as far as pulls, so we had to tailor the offense to what they could do in the second half,” Simpson said.
The Skyhawks helped their cause by holding the ball for more than 32 minutes compared to 27 minutes for the Redhawks.
Inspired by Burton’s touchdown, the Skyhawk offense came alive, finding the end zone three times in the third quarter.
After a Burton punt return set the Skyhawks up at midfield, Chapman took over, methodically pounding his way down the field.
Following a 13-yard Greg Preston completion to Roren Thomas, Chapman ran the ball six times for 36 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. His longest run on the drive was a 14-yarder that put the ball on the SEMO 11 yard line. Preston also completed a critical six-yard pass to Burton on a 3rd-and-5 play to keep the drive alive.
With a seven-point lead to protect, the Skyhawk defense shut down the Redhawks by halting the passing game.
Offensively, Chapman controlled the Skyhawks’ next drive, which began deep in Redhawk territory at the 26. Chapman carried the ball four times on the drive, scoring from one yard out to stretch the lead to 21-7 with 5:27 remaining in the third quarter.
His game-clinching scamper came after the Redhawks used a 52-yard drive to record a touchdown that cut the Skyhawk lead to 21-14 with 8:09 remaining in the fourth quarter.
That drive ate only 1:44 off the clock as the home team moved quickly down the field.
The Skyhawks will return to Graham Stadium for their home finale against Eastern Kentucky Saturday at noon. They will then travel to Murray to close out the season against the rival Racers, who are led by former UTM head coach Matt Griffin. The Racers have struggled to a 1-9 record this season, including 0-7 in the OVC.
The Skyhawks have an all-time record of 11-25-1 against the Racers, including a 49-20 victory in last year’s season-ending matchup, UTM’s sixth win of the season.