By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – When the Ohio Valley Conference released its preseason football poll back in July, the Tennessee Tech football team was picked seventh by the league's coaches and SIDs, eighth by the league's beat writers.
When the season finally came to a close, the Golden Eagles proved them wrong.
Not only that, Tech (5-6, 5-3 OVC) also showed a lot of potential for the future, closing out the first year of the Marcus Satterfield era with a third-place finish in the conference, routing Murray State 55-19 on Saturday afternoon at Tucker Stadium.
"It was a magnificent finish to an unbelievable year," said Satterfield. "Maybe not from a win-and-losses standpoint, but from a organization of growth and trust. We've really been branding these guys and for them to buy in their trust and understanding how we do things daily and see them have some success at the end of the season like they've had these last two weeks, it's been really special to be a part of."
The Golden Eagles, who have scored 99 points in the last two games, compiled 523 yards of offense, including 210 rushing yards and 313 yards through the air.
To score that many points in the last two weeks, it's certainly a statement.
"You run the football and you stop the run, you win the kicking game and win the turnover margin, everything else will take care of itself," Satterfield said. "We pride ourselves on being the hardest-playing football team in the country. We try to do that every day in practice, every game we play and the guys have come light years from the Wofford game until now.
"All of them will probably tell you they wish they could start the season over, but that's what adversity is there for. To create championship programs, we have to learn from the first part of the season and respond. We'll carry that into the offseason, and hopefully that will catapult us into the upper echelon of this league and lead to championships."
Dontez Byrd had a record-setting day as his 14-catch, 198-yard effort broke both the Tech single-season receptions and receiving yardage records. Byrd ended the campaign with 933 yards on 74 catches.
"I didn't know that I was that close," Byrd said. "My coaches just told me to go out there and play, to not worry about any records, just play football and that's what I did.
Senior quarterback Michael Birdsong threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 43-yard strike to Byrd in the first quarter, a 29-yard score to Byrd in the second, then a 42-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hicks in the third.
"Mike came up to me at halftime," Satterfield said, "He looked at me and said, 'Holy cow. This doesn't even look like the same team we started the season with.' They all had energy, they all wanted to put their foot on (Murray's) throat and finish the game. It was pretty cool."
Birdsong said, "I said it to Coach (Justin) Rascati after the win last week, it's just incredible the steps we have taken throughout the season. This team's on a whole new level and I'm excited to see where they go in the next season."
Thaenrat, for the second straight week, rushed over 100 yards, picking up 118 yards on 15 carries, averaging 7.5 yards per tote.
"I give the offensive line the credit," Thaenrat said. "It was tough, but I knew they had it in them. They finally found a way to see that they are the best offensive line in the OVC. They played that way these last few weeks. They found ways to make holes. My instincts just took over."
It wasn't just the offense scoring as Deven Sullivan picked off a pass from K.D. Humphries, returning it 37 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Hall also picked off a pass from the Murray QB.
"I was honestly just seeing the energy of this team," Hall said. "It wasn't anything that I did personally. I was just playing off the energy of the sideline, of the players on the field. It was a collective deal."
Nick Madonia didn't have a 57-yard field goal this time, but he kicked a 37- and a 46-yard field goal in the first quarter, then added seven extra points for 13 points in the contest, one shy of the 14 he scored last week at Tennessee State.
Connor Mitchell kicked a pair of field goals – 33 and 38 yards – in the second quarter to score Murray State's first six points, then the Racers scored 13 points in the fourth quarter as Mareio McGraw scored on a one-yard run, then Humphries threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Malik Golson.
However, the Golden Eagles had the game far out of reach.
For all the adversity the team faced early on, it seemed that in the last two games of the season that proverbial light switch was turned on as the Tech players performed above and beyond, eager to prove just what they were capable of.
"We don't ever make excuses about having young players," Satterfield said. "We just kept playing. Those freshmen became sophomores by the middle of the season, the sophomores juniors. That's what happens when you do it right, when you compete every single day like our kids do and prepare every single day and week like our kids do. You treat every practice like it's a championship game.
"This is what happens. This is the end result. We wish it had happened earlier, but we close with a three-game winning streak in the OVC and we're going to carry that into the offseason with momentum and see what we can do."
Hall added, "We've finished second-to-last in the conference in the last few years. To finish in the upper tier of the league, it's awesome. We've been getting beat up for awhile. To actually get a chance to lay a beatdown on teams that's been doing it to us, it's a blessing. Hopefully, they take this momentum and do something special."
For Hall and Birdsong, even though their careers are done, along with the rest of the 2016 senior class, it means a lot to be a part of it.
"It means everything," Birdsong said. "For Maleek, he was here as part of the old culture, I came in new. I give credit for him and those seniors who were already here to be able to change themselves and buy into Coach Satt's program. For me, I just came in. I already had a mindset and didn't have to change anything personally. But those guys did all the work during the spring to get these guys where they were."
Hall added, "I'm just thankful. I'm thankful for Coach Sam (Williamson) and Coach (Watson) Brown to give me the opportunity to come play at Tennessee Tech, thankful for Coach Satt for keeping me. He didn't have to keep me. He could have brought guys in to play corner for him. I'm just thankful, thankful for turning the program around."
And to give the senior class a victory on the final game was important for the newcomers Byrd and Thaenrat.
"We didn't want to make a big scene about it being Senior Day," Byrd said. "We treated it like another OVC game and we wanted to get the win as a team. We're working on sending a message and going into the offseason with some momentum."
Thaenrat added, "Coming into the game, it was all about us. It was their day, but it was about all of us. They helped lay a foundation where Dontez and I can take over and keep building."