By Jonathan Stark
For FCS schools like Eastern, the last few weeks have been games against non-conference opponents. Those games mean very little as it’s now conference time.Eastern (1-2, 0-0 OVC) opens up conference play on the road at Tennessee State (3-0, 0-0 OVC) this Saturday.
A year ago, the Tigers came up to Richmond, got steamrolled 49-7 and went back to Nashville with their tails between their legs. But this year will prove to be another story.
Tennessee State enters conference play 3-0, and two of its wins are against teams that beat them last year. The Tigers also enter the game with the No. 25 ranking in the Sports Network poll.
“We don’t look at 3-0,” Eastern Head Coach Dean Hood said. “I could care less that they’re 3-0 or 0-3 or got a ranking or don’t got a ranking. That stuff mean’s nothing.What matters is after you kick off that leather thing. That’s what matters. Nobody’s ever won a game with a ranking or a record. You win it on the football field.”
Tennessee State is one of the best offensive teams in the OVC. They’re ranked second in the conference in points per game (36.30), passing yards per game (274.7), and total yards per game (382.3). They’re first in pass efficiency at 166.7.
The man running the show is senior quarterback Antonio Heffner. Heffner was injured in the game against Eastern last year, so they didn’t see much of him. But he is off to a good start this season. In three games, he’s completed 50 of 75 passes for 744 yards and five touchdowns while only throwing two interceptions. He’s just as talented on the ground, rushing for 135 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries.
“He is definitely one of the best players in the league,” Hood said. “There’s no doubt he’s a great player, and that’s what we look at. He’s the guy that gets em’ going.”
The Tiger’s have an designed playes that allow their quaterback to run or pass.
“He’s got a lot of skilled guys to throw it to,” Hood said.
Running back Javar Williams had 12 touchdowns last season. He has three so far this season along with 157 yards on the ground. These two in the backfield will be a lot of trouble if the defense can not contain them.
Chris Johnson, Brandon Belvin, and JuJuan Spillman are the Tigers’ top receivers. They’ve combined for 39 catches and all five of the team’s passing touchdowns.
Spillman’s name might sound familiar; he played for the University of Louisville last season before being kicked off the team for violating team rules. Spillman also has a kick return for a touchdown.
The Tennessee State offense is pretty balanced but a dual-threat quarterback has already caused the Eastern defense problems once this season. Eastern has to contain him if they’re going to win. The Colonels’ tackling looked better against Morehead but still needs to improve.
Linebacker TyJuan Jones has been one of Eastern’s stand-out players on defense. He has led the Colonels in tackles all three weeks and is third in the OVC with 33 tackles. Jones also has a sack and two forced fumbles.
“TyJuan is doing a great job. He’s a kid that I’m really proud of,” Hood said. “He’s come a long way personally as a young man and also as a football player. He plays physical and he plays hard.It’s been really good for us to have him -a guy who steps up. The biggest thing about him is that he’s been physical. He’s been a physical player for us and I think that’s helped our mentality on defense.”
The Tigers’ defense has also been tops in the OVC. They have the best scoring defense, allowing only 21 points per game. Their total yards allowed is also the best in the conference at 334.7.
This does not look good for the Colonels, who have not scored more than 16 points in any of their games and who average only 248.7 yards a game.
The Tigers have picked off four passes and ran two of them back for touchdowns.
One weak spot for the Tiger defense looks to be their quarterback pressure. They have only recorded two sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. If Allan Holland has a lot of time in the pocket, then it doesn’t matter what their defense does; Holland will be able to find open receivers or tuck the ball in and run.
Eastern needs to establish their running game. Running back Aaron Bradley will most likely be back this week. Bradley was injured against Cincinnati and has not played since.
If Tennessee State has to watch for the run and pass, it’s going to be harder to stop both; but if Eastern gets in a rut and must pass like they had to against Western, then it’s going to be much easier for the Tigers.
If the defense is able to shut down Tennessee State like they did Morehead, then the Colonels should walk away with their second victory of the season. But if they miss tackles and take bad angles, it’s going to be a long night.
Kickoff is Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT in Nashville, Tenn., at LP Field, where the Tennessee Titans play.