Football team face must-win situation at UT-Martin


Jason Howell

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw six passes for 55 yards and rushed 81 yards during the Panthers’ 24-3 loss to Jacksonville State on Saturday at O’Brien Field.

Blake Nash, Assistant Sports Editor

The Eastern football team, which is 5-4 overall and 5-1 in Ohio Valley Conference play, will face a Tennessee-Martin team that has also only lost one conference game.

Following last week’s loss against Jacksonville State, the Panthers will need to win their next two games to improve their playoff hopes.

For the second week in a row, the Panthers’ defense, which ranks third in the OVC, will face one of the conference’s more explosive offenses. The Skyhawks average 484 yards per game and have scored an average of 39.7 points per game, which is second in the OVC behind only Jacksonville State.

Tennessee-Martin’s quarterback Jarod Neal has thrown for 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, but he will face an Eastern passing defense that has held opponents to 180 yards per game.

“This young man is real smart. He knows where to go with the football,” coach Kim Dameron said. “The things we have to do with him, it’s a little bit different.”

Whereas the Panthers have seen dual-threat quarterbacks most of the season, Neal’s tendencies to remain in the pocket and throw may present a new challenge to the Panthers defense. But Dameron said that like all games they have played in this year, this one will be won at the line of scrimmage.

“Our offensive and defensive lines have to impose their will on theirs,” Dameron said. “When you look at most games, they’re won up front, and we feel like this one won’t be any different.”

If Eastern can control the game at the line of scrimmage, the Panthers will try to utilize their running game, which has averaged 200.8 yards per game. Running backs, red-shirt junior Devin Church and red-shirt senior Shepard Little both rank among the Top-10 rushers in the OVC.

Church, who was hampered by an injury weeks ago, said that he is looking forward to this late regular season matchup, which will have an impact on next week’s game against Eastern Kentucky.

“I’m excited for the playoffs. But we’ve got to continue week-by-week and focus on ourselves,” Church said. “We’re not going to stress ourselves out.”

Before the Jacksonville State game, Church had rushed for 62 yards in two games, but he seemed to turn the corner against the Gamecocks. He rushed for 84 yards on 15 carries in the 24-3 loss.

With Neal and the rest of the Skyhawks’ pass-oriented offense, Dameron said the Panthers need to control the line of scrimmage and control the ball with their running game.

“Anytime you play a team with a pass-oriented offense, you need to run it and run it well. Like always, that’s our first priority,” Dameron said.

For seniors such as Little, defensive tackle Dino Fanti and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, their future depends on the outcome of this game. If the Panthers are victorious on Saturday, those three and the rest of the Panther seniors will have one more shot to make the playoffs on Senior Day.

But it is teammates like junior linebacker Seth McDonald, that will do everything in their power to make sure the seniors have a great end to their Eastern career and even a playoff berth.

“These two games, I’m going to be playing for these seniors,” McDonald said. “I’m just going to play my ass off for them, and do everything I can.”

Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at Graham Stadium in Martin, Tenn., and the game can be see online on ESPN3.


Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]