The Skyhawk football team accomplished on Saturday what first-year head coach Jason Simpson set as his goal the day he accepted the job.
With a 42-14 thumping of rival Murray State and Tennessee State’s loss to Eastern Kentucky the Skyhawks clinched their first-ever Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Sunday afternoon’s NCAA football championship selection show officially put the UTM name on the playoff bracket, marking a new milestone for a team that had already set several new team and individual marks over the course of the season.
Despite being guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, the Skyhawks had to wait until the last pairing appeared on the television screen to learn of their postseason assignment. They will head to Southern Illinois on Saturday to face the Salukis of the Gateway Conference. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
Should the Skyhawks win that game, they could face a much longer trip to take on the winner of the Montana- McNeese State game.
Entering the season, the team was picked to finish near the bottom of the conference and was reeling from the departure of head coach Matt Griffin. It seemed fitting, then, for Griffin to be present for the Skyhawks’ arrival at the top.
“I went to work the day I got the job on Dec. 21,” Simpson said. “We talked to our seniors about being OVC champions, and how it was a realistic goal.”
Throughout the season, the Skyhawk senior class displayed great leadership and continued that effort in their final regular-season game.
“This is a great group of seniors. We have 18 guys who are good quality people, and good quality players,” Simpson said. “I’m thankful to help get them here (OVC championship).”
As was the case throughout the season, junior running back Don Chapman led the way for the Skyhawks, putting up 206 yards on 30 carries. He scored three touchdowns, including two in the first half, when the Skyhawks outscored the Racers, 21-7.
His highlight of the day was an 83-yard burst to open the third quarter that extended the Skyhawk lead to 28-7.
Josh Chapman also had a big day on the ground for the Skyhawks, rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown on only five carries.
As a team, the Skyhawks finished the game with a total of 371 yards on the ground and 432 yards of total offense, nearly double the output of their opponent.
While the running backs have carried the Skyhawk offense this season, the team’s two quarterbacks combined to complete four passes without an interception against the Racer defense. Redshirt freshman Greg Preston hooked up with junior college transfer Jesse Burton on the team’s first possession of the game for a 35-yard touchdown play that opened the floodgates.
“If you look at our stats, our passing game isn’t where it needs to be, but you can’t take away one thing from our freshmen quarterbacks—- they are the leaders of an OVC championship team,” Simpson said.
“They do a lot of things that don’t show up in the stats, making checks, carrying out fakes, and avoiding delay of game penalties.”
The team’s total of 42 points was a season-high and included five offensive touchdowns and four scoring plays of at least 30 yards. Cornerback Jack Greenwood provided a touchdown for the Skyhawk defense when he scooped up a fumble by Racer quarterback Zach Barnard and returned it 47 yards for the score.
The victory came in front of a crowd that wore more orange than gold, especially once the outcome became obvious in the second half. By the end of the game, very few Racer fans remained while the Skyhawk supporters participated in a chant of “OVC!” in celebration of their team’s accomplishment.
Even their former coach had nothing but praise for the players he recruited to UTM.
“I sure am happy for UT Martin,” Griffin said.
“They worked hard and they deserved to win the championship. They play hard and play tough, and that’s what we aspire for. Their senior class is the hardest working bunch of guys I have ever coached.”
For some here at UTM, there is a feeling of gratification at ending the regular season with a victory over the Racers, who have struggled to a 1-10 season and an 0-8 finish in the OVC under Griffin.
The season will continue this weekend when the Skyhawks enter a whole new phase of football: the NCAA Division I Football Championship.