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CSN Inside the OVC: Only One Unbeaten

floated rightBy James D. Horne, CSN Inside the OVC Columnist

Last week during Tennessee State’s bye, coach James Webster got to sit back and watch things unfold in the uber-competitive Ohio Valley Conference race.

What he witnessed vaulted his Tigers to the catbird seat as the lone undefeated team in the league thanks to Eastern Kentucky’s 38-35 victory over previously OVC unbeaten Jacksonville State.

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But the No. 21 ranked and first-place Tigers (5-1, 2-0 OVC) understand the perils that come with their position.

“All it does is make our job that much tougher,” Webster said. “Teams always want to beat the top dog, and if we are that it puts a bulls-eye on our chest and just makes it tougher. I’ve always said we get everyone’s best shot and now that we’re in first place, we know we will now.”

Tennessee State also is aware that Austin Peay (0-6, 0-3 OVC) would love nothing more than giving the Tigers’ their first conference loss in a Sgt. York Trophy game beginning at 5 p.m. at LP Field Saturday.

“We don’t look at records, and we don’t look at Austin Peay’s record, because it doesn’t mean anything,” Webster said. “We don’t take Austin Peay lightly. Anyone can beat anyone and for us we have to fight hard and play hard against Austin Peay.”

Webster added that he had his team “work and run harder” during its bye week last week than at fall camp.

The Govs, who also are coming off a bye week, are well aware of what’s in store for them in playing Tennessee State.

“It’s a tough thing to turn around and play No. 21 in the country and No. 1 in the conference,” Austin Peay coach Rick Christophel said. “For us to win, we’re going to have to play a perfect game, and we’ve got to go down there and do everything we can to win the game. We hope to get into the fourth quarter. But they’re so good that if we make mistakes we’re going to have a tough time.”

YORK WEEKEND: UT Martin (5-2, 3-1 OVC) and Tennessee Tech (3-4, 1-2 OVC) also hold a Sgt. York Trophy game at 7 p.m. Thursday in Cookeville.

It’s the first time that all Tennessee teams are playing a Sgt. York Trophy in the same week. The Sgt. York Trophy was established last season and goes to the winner of the round-robin series among the four OVC programs in Tennessee. It’s the second traveling trophy that involves more than two teams, joining the Commander in Chief’s Trophy that’s been battled for among Air Force, Army and Navy since 1972.

NO MORE THAN ONE: It’s a big weekend for all the one-loss teams in the OVC: UT Martin (5-2, 3-1 OVC), Eastern Kentucky (5-2, 3-1 OVC), Jacksonville State (4-2, 2-1 OVC) and Murray State (3-4, 2-1 OVC).

And it’s all about the playoffs. Since the playoffs began in 1979, only three teams with two league losses have earned at-large berths.

Former members Middle Tennessee (5-2) in 1984 and Akron (5-2) in 1985 did it, as did Eastern Illinois (6-2) in 1996.

“It’s critical. We’re playing for our lives,” Jax State coach Jack Crowe said. “(Our opponent) Murray State, I promise you they have a plan to be there. They have one loss in this league, just like several of us, and everyone with one loss knows it won’t be crowded for long with the competition in this league.”

Jacksonville State helped create the logjam with its 38-35 loss to Eastern Kentucky.

UT Martin caused another shakeup with its 29-26 victory over four-time champion Eastern Illinois last week.

“There’s no question we’re looking forward to practice (Tuesday) because of what’s happened,” UTM coach Jason Simpson said. “We’re in the kind of race that you’re out if you have more than one loss. But all we’re talking about is playing a solid Tennessee Tech team. We’re talking about that and having to get on bus (today).”

UNCHARTED WATERS: Eastern Illinois hasn’t lost two OVC games since going 4-4 in 2004. While things look bleak for the Panthers, they aren’t throwing in the towel yet.

“We’ve got a long way to go and a lot can happen,” EIU coach Bob Spoo said. “There’s a slim chance of a team with two losses making it. But we’re not looking at that. We’re trying to win our first OVC football game. That’s our focus. We’re just looking at trying to beat SEMO.”

THE GAMES:
(All times Central, Eastern Kentucky has a bye)

Thursday’s Game: UT Martin Skyhawks (5-2, 3-1 OVC) at Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (3-4, 1-2 OVC), 7 p.m.
The Skyhawks are coming off a big victory over Eastern Illinois, while Tech is coming off a big loss to Murray State. The Golden Eagles beat UTM 13-10 last season, which broke a two-game losing streak. Tech owns a 16-8 lead all-time.

BREAKING IT DOWN: The Skyhawks must win to keep control of their own destiny. A Tech victory might signal that UTM was looking ahead to its ESPNU showdown with Jacksonville State next week.
THE PICK: UTM 35, Tech 21.

Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (2-4, 0-2 OVC) at Eastern Illinois Panthers (2-4, 0-2 OVC), 1:30 p.m.
EIU is in unfamiliar territory being 0-2. SEMO won just one league game in 2007, the last contest of the year. But the Panthers have won four straight over SEMO and seven of the last eight, including 31-16 on the road last year.

BREAKING IT DOWN: EIU knows history is not on its side. But the Panthers have to win out to keep their hopes of an at-large berth alive, because all the one-loss teams could suffer a defeat at some point.
THE PICK: EIU 27, SEMO 13.

Murray State Racers (3-4, 2-1 OVC) at No. 23 Jacksonville State Gamecocks (4-2, 2-1 OVC), 4 p.m.
The Racers are the hottest team in the league and are unexpectedly early contenders after a triumph over Tech. Jax State, the choice by many to win the league, received an unexpected loss to EKU. The Gamecocks have won four of the five previous meetings, including 40-24 at Murray State last year.

BREAKING IT DOWN: Don’t expect JSU QB Ryan Perrilloux to throw five interceptions again. But do expect a nice QB throw-down between he and Racer QB Jeff Ehrhardt.
THE PICK: JSU 45, RACERS 28.

Austin Peay Governors (0-6, 0-3 OVC) at No. 21 Tennessee State Tigers (5-1, 2-0 OVC), 5 p.m.
Last year’s game came down to missed extra points. TSU went 3-for-4. The Govs went 2-for-5, including one blocked by NFL first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie that sealed the 33-32 victory for the Tigers. TSU leads all-time 7-3, although the meeting last year was the first in 11 years.

BREAKING IT DOWN: The Tigers have many tools and the hype, but the Govs relish the thought of handing them their first loss. The Tigers are just more stable offensively with QB Antonio Heffner and RB Javarris Williams than the Govs are with QBs T.C. Jennings and Trent Caffee, and the three runningbacks they use.
THE PICK: TSU 42, APSU 14.

James D. Horne can be reached by e-mail at this address.