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TSU looks to remain hot; faces conference foe Eastern Illinois

BOXTOROW National Game of the Week
3/3Tennessee State (4-0, 1-0) vs. Eastern Illinois (3-2, 1-1)

Tennessee State has won its first four games of the season for the first time since 2012, the year before they made an appearance in the FCS playoffs which to that point they hadn’t done in 14 years.

The Tigers are coming off an impressive 34-30 home victory over fellow OVC foe UT Martin, one that saw field goal kicker Lane Clark – named BOXTOROW National Player of the Week – make critical field goals from 54 and 57 yards to help in the Tigers victory.  While 34 points is significant, the Tigers had to settle for the two 50+ yard field goals by Lane after forcing UT Martin into turnovers on both possessions, which gave the Tigers the ball in UTM territory.

It took a seven-play, 74-yard drive in 1:36 for TSU to pull out the victory when quarterback Ronald Butler found wide receiver Patrick Smith for a nine-yard touchdown pass and catch with :18 remaining in the game.

Tennessee State has been solid offensively this year and while the passing game continues to flourish under red-shirt senior Ronald Butler – despite starter O’Shay Ackerman-Carter being lost for the season – it’s the running game that has made the difference.  The Tigers average 168.5 yards rushing per game which is second in the conference.  Junior Erik Evans and freshman Earl Harrison have combined to rush for 458 yards, five touchdowns and average 5.1 yards per carry.

Butler, who has mainly been a backup in his career at TSU but has made 14 starts, had one of his best games as a Tiger last week completing 17-of-24 passes for 223 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.  His go to receivers are Smith, who has 20 receptions for 246 yards and five touchdowns and Steven Newbold, who has 15 receptions for 337 yards, 22.5 yards per reception and two touchdowns.

The Tigers are third in the OVC in total offense (403.2), second in points (37.2) and have also done a solid job of protecting the football with a league-low four turnovers and lead the league at +6 in turnover margin.

Defensively, TSU is much improved this year and teams have found it tough running the football against the Tigers who give up just 87 yards rushing per game which is seventh in FCS.  As a matter of fact the overall defense is very good, raking first in the OVC and third in the nation.  But the Tigers gave up 321 passing yards and four touchdowns to UT Martin last week.  Preseason All-OVC first team selection defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko has been the leader for the Tigers up front, registering 30 tackles (18 solo), 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, while corner Terrell Bonds leads the Tigers in interceptions (3).

Eastern Illinois comes in as the #20 ranked team in FCS.  The Panthers may not have the highest stats, but they just win football games.  While EIU is coming off a 21-14 loss to Southeast Missouri, prior to that they had won three-straight including wins over then fifth-ranked Illinois State and FCS opponent Miami (OH).

The Panthers offense averages 400.8 yards per game.  Mitch Kimble, who transferred to EIU from Syracuse, is the presumed starter on Saturday.  He started the first three games, but missed the last two after sustaining a concussion in the Illinois State game.  Austin Green has started the last two games.  Devin Church has been the workhorse at running back with 76 carries for 381 yards, a five-yard per carry average and two touchdowns.

The EIU defense gives up almost 380 yards per game, but is an opportunistic defense that has created eight turnovers which is tied for third in the conference.

A win for TSU and they would remain undefeated in the OVC and should move into the FCS top 25 rankings.  A loss would hurt, but wouldn’t put them out of contention for the OVC crown.

A win for EIU and they remain in the race for the OVC crown.  A loss and the Panthers OVC title hopes are all but over.