By Darren Zancan
The Colonels are 20-0 all-time against the UT Martin Skyhawks after Saturday’s 31-25 win. UT Martin came close to defeating Eastern in 2008 but came up short, losing 33-31 on the last play of the game when Eastern blocked a field attempt. Saturday’s homecoming game almost turned out the same way, but Eastern was able to hang on.
The game’s outcome, which was up in the air until the end, ultimately was determined by UT’s turnovers – and there were a lot of them: four interceptions and one fumble, which proved to be the deciding factor in Eastern’s win.
From the beginning, Eastern played with urgency, scoring on the first series of the game. The drive was punctuated by quarterback T.J. Pryor’s ability to find open receivers, connecting on three passes to three different receivers, including a 12-yard touchdown completion to Shannon Davis.
For UT Martin, the opening drive set the game’s tone. Eastern’s Jeremy Caldwell, picked off quarterback Cade Thompson and notched his fifth interception of the year.
“The wide receiver kind of had me beat, but I speed-turned into him and the ball went directly through his hands,” Caldwell said. “I pulled it out of there and made a great catch.”
Eastern would intercept another Thompson pass, this time by linebacker Patrick McClellan. It was McClellan’s first pick of the year, but the Colonels could not capitalize, going three-and-out.
“We really needed to get turnovers and we knew that heading into the game,” McClellan said. “Getting turnovers creates opportunities to score points.”
UT Martin would get the ball back, but on the Skyhawks’ sixth play of the drive, Caldwell would step in front of another Thompson pass for Eastern’s third interception of the game.
It was Caldwell’s third game of the year in which he grabbed two interceptions.
Pryor capitalized on UT Martin’s turnover. On the first play of the drive, Pryor found a wide-open Garnett Phelps at UT Martin’s 30-yard line. Phelps ran to the other side of the field, breaking tackles for a 45-yard touchdown, giving Eastern a 14-0 lead.
“Of course it all starts with the offensive line,” Phelps said. “They blocked well and T.J. made the read and got me the ball. I just made the play.”
Phelps and Pryor have developed chemistry and improved statistically every game. Phelps finished with seven catches for 118 yards and one touchdown.
Pryor, who went 19-33 for 235-yards and two touchdowns, has steadily improved each of his last three starts. Pryor found several targets for big gains and threw the ball down field several times, something he has not done much during the first half of the season.
“He throws a great deep ball,” Hood said. “That’s one of the things we noticed first off about him. We have receivers that have breakaway speed. Last year, we wanted to throw deep, but we are better at it this year. T.J. is on the money.”
Thompson shook off the first quarter rust and got UT Martin on the board in the second quarter. A 10-yard completion to Kenny Jones capped an eight-play, 60-yard drive. Eastern defensive lineman Andrew Soucy, however, blocked the extra point. The Skyhawks had cut the lead to 14-6.
Neither team was able to find the end zone for the rest of the half.
Eastern started the third quarter like they did the first: with a touchdown on its opening drive.
The Colonels pushed UT Martin back to its 1-yard line, forcing them to punt. Eastern got the ball on UT Martin’s 48-yard line and needed four plays to find the end zone.
This time H.B. Banjoman took a handoff from Pryor for a 2-yard touchdown giving Eastern a 21-6 lead.
UT Martin looked to cut into the lead once again, but Thompson threw his fourth interception of the game. Thompson also threw four interceptions last year against the Colonels.
“It’s kind of like déj vu,” UT Martin Head Coach Jason Simpson said. “We’re not going to win if we turn the ball over. Period. He knows that and he is playing as hard as he can. Things happen but guess what, I’d put him back out there tomorrow.”
Both offenses were all over the place in the fourth quarter.
Thompson, who finished 30 for 44 with four interceptions, three touchdown passes and 334 yards, came back strong in the fourth quarter rushing for a 1-yard touchdown to slice into the lead. After an extra point, the Skyhawks trailed 21-13.
“Thompson is a fine quarterback,” Hood said. “That kid is unbelievable. I’ve never seen a quarterback that can do what he did in the first half and not just get crumbled, not got over there and be in a fetal position and make them put a back up in. Two years in a row he gets pummeled and then throws a haymaker.”
Pryor once again led his team to a score. Pryor found Phelps for another big gain, this time for 17-yards and a first down. Six plays later O’Connor hit a 41-yard field goal stretching the lead to 24-13.
“We are doing a lot more in practice to help me see coverages and be able to make those down-field passes,” Pryor said.
Thompson marched his offense down the field capping an eight-play, 70-yard drive with a 29-yard strike for a touchdown to receiver Bryan Milligan. At this point UT Martin was only down five, 24-19.
The Skyhawks’ defense forced Eastern to punt and looked as if the momentum would swing back to the visiting team, but Eastern was able to put the game away.
On the ensuing punt, Milligan watched the ball go between his legs. He turned around only to be pushed by an Eastern player. Milligan’s force caused him to touch the ball, leading to a fumble claimed by Eastern when McClellan jumped on the ball at the UT Martin’s four-yard line.
Three plays later C.J. Walker found the end zone with a two-yard run to seal the game.
Thompson found Dexter Anoka for another UT Martin touchdown, but Eastern was able to walk away on Homecoming with a win and strong contributions from all sides of the ball.
“Winning today does a lot for my sleep pattern,” Coach Hood said. “It is always better to win. Losing magnifies things you try and get across, beating them over the head with. But winning is always better. You can feel better about things and it puts you in better position.