By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – After watching an early 12-point lead disappear, the Tennessee Tech football team kept falling further and further behind.
Late in the third quarter, the Golden Eagles trailed by 23 points. With 2:20 left in the contest, Tech was down by 16.
Most prognosticators would probably have put the game squarely in Samford's pockets. The Golden Eagles, however, weren't listening.
Instead, Tech put together a comeback for the ages, scoring 16 points in a 99-second span to force overtime, then a gutsy two-point conversion in the second overtime gave the Golden Eagles a 59-58 victory.
"If I started with anything other than 'Wow,' I don't think it'd be a great opening statement," joked Tech head coach Dewayne Alexander following the game. "That was just an awesome night for Tennessee Tech, an awesome night for Cookeville, an awesome night for our fans and our players, our senior football players that have gone through so many disappointing games. For them to have a win like this, I'm so happy for them.
"The team competed well, obviously. We made a lot of mistakes and we'll learn a lot from this game. It was advantageous for Samford to have played a game (last week at Youngstown State) and all we'd done is scrimmage each other. We had some young guys in the secondary out there and Samford was a very good offensive team. We knew that coming in. We had our chances early on to score some points, then we were kicking field goals and they were scoring touchdowns."
Freshman Metrius Fleming scored his first touchdown for Tech on a 66-yard run on the third play of the game, then Haidar Zaidan kicked a 24-yard field goal and Henry Karimu tackled Samford's DeMarcus Ware in the end zone for a safety to go up 12-0.
Samford switched to USF transfer Chris Oladokun after the first two drives and he proceeded to throw four touchdown passes in the next six drives to push the Bulldogs well ahead, by as many as 19 points. Oladokun completed 19 of his 24 passes for six touchdowns and 428 yards and rushed for another score.
Trailing 38-15 with just a minute left in the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Bailey Fisher turned it on. From that point to the end of the contest, he threw two touchdown passes and ran for three touchdowns.
And as Tech clawed its way back, it wasn't from the kicking game, even as Zaidan was perfect on his first two career field goals and from PATs.
"He started to cramp up," Alexander said. "He wasn't going to be able to kick any more in the game, so we didn't even know if he was going to be able to kick the extra point in the first overtime."
But with Fisher going 2-for-3 on two-point conversions in regulation – a rush and a pass to Justin Oden for the two successes – the option was a feasible one.
It turned out to be the right call, with Fisher completing the two-point conversion pass to David Gist, who made an incredible, leaping grab to clinch the victory.
"We had already made up our mind to go for two," Alexander said. "I just felt like that was what we needed to do.
"Our staff is going to have to work on our two-point plays because we exhausted them all," he joked through a laugh. "We gave them just about everything we had in the playbook, even some that we didn't have. We'll have to draw some more up."
Fisher threw for a career-high 415 yards as he completed 31 of his 44 passes. The 415-yard total is the third-best passing game in Tech history. He added 48 yards on the ground for 463 yards of total offense, also standing as the third-most in a single game in program history behind Tre Lamb (474 in 2012 vs. SEMO) and Darian Stone (467 in 2012 vs. Tennessee State).
The game is also the highest combined score in program history, besting the 111 points scored between Samford and Tennessee Tech in 2007. Neither team had a turnover in the contest.
The total touchdowns ties the Tech record for touchdowns responsible for in a game. Tech's 671 yards of offense is also a new school record, besting the 644 yards turned in against Valparaiso in 2002.
After Samford scored on the first half of the second extra session, Andrew Goldsmith scored the final touchdown on a 14-yard run, then Fisher found David Gist in the end zone for the game-winning score.
The two teams combined for 1,233 yards of total offense.
"Our guys didn't quit," Alexander said. "We kept competing, kept playing and never thought we were out of the game. I'm very proud of this football team and their effort. I'm proud of our staff. We still have a lot of work to do and very much still a work-in-progress. It's easier to say that after you've won a game than lost a game."
And it's easier to say when a laundry list of players found ways to contribute in the contest.
"The thing we talked about in the team meeting Friday night was links in a chain," Alexander said. "Everybody has some way to make a difference in a game. We had a lot of different guys and this stat sheet is full of guys who made huge plays – Justin Oden, a freshman who made big plays; Metrius Fleming, who's sitting down here, right out of the gate and goes to the house 66 yards and made huge plays; Aderick Moore is giving amazing senior leadership and has been outstanding; Bailey Fisher just made play after play after play.
"Austin Hicks, Darrius Stafford (who caught the onside kick to give Tech the opportunity to go on the other last-minute scoring drive), Henry Karimu, Andrew Goldsmith – I can just go on and on and on. So many guys and we'll continue to get better and improve. But we are excited to be 1-0, I know that."
Tech will try to improve to 2-0 next Saturday, but it will be a tough test as the Golden Eagles make their annual foray into the Football Bowl Subdivision as they head to Oxford, Ohio to take on Miami (Ohio) out of the Mid-American Conference. Kickoff on Saturday is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information