The football team’s conference championship aspirations took a big hit Saturday as the Racers let the UT Martin Skyhawks run away with a 45-17 victory.
Coming off a bye week, the Racers made the short trip to Martin, Tenn., hoping to earn a share of the second-place spot in the OVC.
Poor play on the offensive side of the ball and a forgettable second half turned the short road trip into a long day as the Racers fell to 5-4 on the season and dropped to a tie for fifth in the conference standings.
The Racers came out strong with a fumble recovery in the end zone by sophomore linebacker T-Ray Malone followed by a 26-yard run by senior Jaamal Berry gave Murray State an early 14-0 lead.
The Skyhawks rallied back in the second quarter, however, and at halftime the teams were tied at 17.
Things turned south for the Racers in the third quarter as sophomore quarterback Maikhail Miller and the offense failed to get anything going through the air.
UT Martin capitalized, scoring two unanswered touchdowns off a Miller interception and a 3-and-out by the Racer offense.
As the third quarter expired, the Skyhawks had built a commanding 31-17 lead.
“We played well in the first half,” Head Coach Chris Hatcher said. “Then there was a four-minute span in the third quarter that just did us in. It seemed like that quarter lasted two hours. The wind picked up and I was just hoping to get out of the quarter down 14 and make something happen with the wind (on our side).”
Things only got worse for the Racers during the fourth quarter.
UT Martin took its first drive of the quarter 99 yards, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown pass to go up 38-17.
In an effort to get something going on offense, Hatcher made a change at quarterback, replacing Miller with junior Parks Frazier. Miller finished the day with nine completions on 20 attempts for 96 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns.
“We weren’t just going to sit there and keep taking it, so we figured we’d get Parks in there and see if he could get us going,” Hatcher said. “It’s not that we were disappointed in one guy, we were just trying to put somebody in there to spark us and get something going in our favor.”
Frazier didn’t fare much better in the game’s final minutes.
He would finish with three completions on nine attempts for 46 yards and one interception.
UT Martin tacked on one last touchdown and the long day ended with a 45-17 blowout for the Racers.
“In the third quarter, it just seemed like we didn’t have a lot of spunk about us coming out and they blew the game out of proportion,” Berry said. “We didn’t have enough energy and they just drove down and scored some unanswered points and it got out of control.”
As for the quarterback situation, Hatcher is not sure who he will start this weekend. Since Miller transferred in from Ole Miss, he has started every game for the Racers this season.
Hatcher says the decision will be made based on the duo’s performance in practice this week.
“We’re going to let those two guys battle this week,” Hatcher said. “They battle every week, but this week they’ll be under a little more scrutiny than they normally are.”
The Racers will need to get more consistent quarterback play out of the starter as they face a tall task this weekend. The No. 2 Eastern Illinois Panthers will look to maintain their perfect conference record Saturday as they pay a visit to Roy Stewart Stadium.
Led by the OVC’s all-time leading passer, Jimmy Garoppolo and the Eastern Illinois aerial assault represent the most potent offense in the country.
“The big thing with (Eastern Illinois) is you can’t get behind early,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got to do a good job early of not letting them come out and land too many big blows.”
Hatcher’s team nearly beat the eventual OVC champions last season, losing in Charleston, Ill., on a two-point conversion in overtime.
This year, however, the Panthers are undefeated in OVC play and have only one loss, which came against Northern Illinois.
Despite long odds and a tough opponent, Hatcher and his team said they will remain positive as they prepare for the Panthers.
“Our guys believe they can win the game,” Hatcher said. “Each week brings new opportunities and new challenges, and this week is no different. We’re getting ready to play the No. 2 team in the nation at our place, and we’re excited about that and we’ve got to have a great week of preparation.”
The Racers and Panthers kick off at noon Saturday at Roy Stewart Stadium.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer