With an influx of youth, Tennessee State has had its sink or swim moments.
Right now, the Tigers are keeping their heads above water.
After a 1-4 start, they have put together two straight victories. Both came in Ohio Valley Conference play and they put themselves back in the league title chase with Saturday’s 42-40 victory against No. 19 Tennessee Tech.
“We opened our eyes and realized that the season was going downhill quickly,” quarterback Mike German said. “There was nobody in the whole universe that could turn the season around but us.”
The latest victory did give head coach Rod Reed and his coaching staff a few gray hairs as their team fended off the Golden Eagles, who rank 14th in the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense.
TSU (3-4, 2-2) almost blew a 22-point second-half lead, but Tech’s onside kick attempt with 15 seconds left failed to go 10 yards.
“I think [holding on] is good for a young team,” Reed said. “I looked out there in the fourth quarter and Tech was down on the goal line. We held them to a field goal and we had four freshmen defensive linemen in the game. So that is the scary part of it. We have a lot of young guys that are getting a lot of minutes. ... Being able to hold up against a great offense, I was real excited about that.”
Heading into Saturday’s game at Eastern Kentucky (3-3, 2-1), TSU has played 13 redshirt freshmen and 11 true freshmen.
Leading the youth movement is German, a redshirt-freshman who has started the last four games.
He took over for senior Jeremy Perry and has been a model of consistency. German is 76-of-131 for 1,115 yards and eight touchdowns. He also has two rushing touchdowns.
The most impressive statistic is that he hasn’t thrown an interception. Only Cal Poly’s Andre Broadous’ streak of 148 consecutive passes without an interception is better.
“He presents all kind of problems,” Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood said. “He manages the game really well. That makes him difficult. He has a lot of weapons, which is another thing that makes him tough. He is just a talented kid that can throw the ball and run the ball.”
German, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla., has been named the OVC’s Newcomer of the Week the last three weeks and on Tuesday was named to the Jerry Rice Award watch list. The inaugural award is presented by The Sports Network and honors the top freshman in the FCS.
“Hopefully he won’t start reading all the newspaper clippings and listening to the all accolades, stay focused on the task at hand and be able to continue to deliver for us,” Reed said. “He is going to have to stand tall, be a man and not turn the ball over, and do things he has been doing up to this point.”
German and the Tigers 14th-ranked scoring offense (34.8 points per game) will face a tough test this weekend as the Colonels, coincidentally, ranked 14th on scoring defense (18.8 points per game).
After this weekend TSU has an open date before it goes to last-place Eastern Illinois. The Tigers return to Nashville and LP Field to close out the season against Tennessee-Martin (3-3, 2-2) and No. 8 Jacksonville State (5-1, 4-0), which sits atop the OVC leaderboard.
In a four-way tie for fourth place in the league, TSU is still in the hunt — for now — for a conference championship and possible playoff spot.
“We are going to have to put on our big-boy pads this week,” Reed said. “It is good to see them mature and grow. I think they will stay grounded. They understand the task at hand. We have to chop wood one game at a time.”