First loss leaves Tennessee State with little or no margin for error

Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 10:39pm

Tennessee State went from out in front to stuck in a crowded field.

Such is the impact of one loss in a tightly contested Ohio Valley Conference race. The No. 21 Tigers (7-1) hope to avoid the wrong sort of streak when Tennessee Tech comes to town Saturday (1 p.m., Hale Stadium).

A 31-28 overtime loss to Jacksonville State last weekend not only gave the TSU its first loss but dropped it to 3-1 in league play. The Tigers are one of four OVC teams with one loss in conference competition, joining Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Illinois.

The Tigers holds the tiebreaker over the 18th-ranked Colonels, who they knocked off three weeks ago. They play at UT-Martin to close out the regular season and will not face Eastern Illinois.

A second league loss could have devastating implications and strip TSU of a chance at a conference championship and playoff bid. Both last happened in 1999.

“Everybody says with two losses you’re fighting for your conference life. Well, we feel like we’re fighting for ours right now,” coach Rod Reed said. “We’re treating every game with a playoff-type atmosphere. We just want to win one though. Our biggest thing is win one. That’s what we’re focused on this week.”

Tennessee Tech, the defending conference champ, limps into town — literally and figuratively.

The Golden Eagles (2-5, 0-4) have a five-game losing streak and allow more than 42.5 points a game. While that ranks 116th in the Football Championship Subdivision, Tech still sits above conference foes Murray State and Austin Peay in scoring defense.

On the flip side, Tech ranks third in the conference and 22nd in the country in scoring offense with more than 32 points a game.

Contributing to the struggles is an unbelievable amount of injuries. Thirty-one players have missed games this season, including 16 starters. Eight Tech players have undergone surgery and five starters are questionable for Saturday.

That list includes quarterback Tre Lamb, who coach Watson Brown described as “beat to a pulp.” He has sustained injuries to his elbow, shoulder and ribs. His favorite target, former Tennessee receiver Da’Rick Rogers, has also played hurt. He caught three touchdowns on a sprained ankle last weekend against Eastern Kentucky. But he made it through the fourth quarter for the first time all season.

“I’ve never been through anything like this in my whole life,” Brown said. “We were lucky the ones last year [with just two major injuries]. But we’re just paying for it. It has been very disruptive. It has been very hard. This is the hardest year of my 20 something years I’ve ever had to coach. Because every week it is moving this guy this to position. It is bringing a guy out of a redshirt. But it has been amazing. Our kids have been resilient. ... We’ll show up Saturday, I promise you. We’ll play very hard Saturday.”

The Tigers return for their third game this year at Hale Stadium. The 59-year-old stadium sat vacant for 14 years until this fall when the team returned to campus for three games in conjunction with the school’s centennial celebration.

The return has been well received. A crowd of 14,264 packed the 18,000-seat stadium to see the first game back last month. Two weeks later, nearly 10,000 watched the Tigers rally past EKU.

No plans have been announced for the future of Hale, though fundraising efforts toward renovating the stadium continue. School officials talked about continuing to play at least two games on campus, with the John Merritt Classic and homecoming staying at LP Field — the Tigers’ home since 1999. Athletics director Teresa Phillips could not be reached for comment.

TSU last lost at “The Hole” on Nov. 15, 1997, to Murray State. Since then, the Tigers have won five straight.

A loss this week would be just the 28th out of 168 games at Hale. A win not only keeps that streak alive but prevents the Tigers from losing consecutive games for the first time since dropping four straight last year.

“Our streak is over. In order to start another streak, you have to win one,” Reed said. “We just have to pick up the pieces and move on. We can’t let that affect us. You’re still in the heat of the conference race.”