By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
MACOMB, Ill. – As the Tennessee Tech football team loads up the buses on Friday to hit the road for its longest road trip of the year – a visit to Western Illinois – the Golden Eagles know they'll be in for a challenge as they close out the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Tech will take on the Fighting Leathernecks at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on 98.5 KISS FM with Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano providing the call, while the game will also be streamed online on ESPN3, with Brendan Reidy and Michael Harms handling those duties.
The Leathernecks come into the contest with a surprising 0-3 record, but it shouldn't be considering who WIU has faced. They dropped a 26-17 decision to open the season at North Alabama, who is 1-2 going into this weekend's game at Jacksonville State. WIU followed it up with a 38-13 at FBS Colorado State (1-2 after losses to Colorado and Arkansas), then fell to FCS No. 10/15 Montana State (2-1 after a 45-10 loss to Texas Tech and a 38-17 win over Southeast Missouri).
Through three games each, the tale of the tape seems to go in favor of the Golden Eagles. Offensively, Tech has averaged 35.7 points per game, still buoyed by the 59-point effort in the double-overtime win over Samford, while averaging 152.7 yards on the ground and 265.3 yards through the air. Western Illinois is averaging 79.7 yards on the ground and 205 through the air.
Defensively, Tech has allowed 40 points per game, WIU 29. But the Leathernecks have been a bend, don't break team on defense, yielding a lot of yards while keeping the team out of the end zone. Tech has allowed an average of 134.3 yards on the ground and 244.7 through the air, while Western has allowed 168.3 yards on the ground and 278.3 on the passing game.
Those numbers do bode well for Tech running backs Andrew Goldsmith and David Gist, who have averaged 46.7 and 44.3 yards respectively. Quarterback Bailey Fisher has also averaged 221.7 yards passing through three games.
WIU has been able to keep kickoff returns to a minimum, allowing an average of 18.25 yards per return – which could curtail freshman Metrius Fleming's efforts to return a kickoff for a touchdown in a second straight game. Tech has been slightly better, allowing opponents to return the ball just an average of 15 yards per kick.
Neither team has faced a lot of penalties – Tech collecting 14 for 120 (an average of 40 yards per game), while Western has 20 for 170 (a 56.67-yard average). Both teams have also been able to control the ball for long periods, Tech averaging 33:01 time of possession and Western 30:03.
One of the biggest things for Tech to watch for, however, will be turnovers. The Golden Eagles have lost the ball eight times – four fumbles, four interceptions – while creating five takeaways, all fumbles. Western Illinois has lost the ball six times – four fumbles, two interceptions – while creating three takeaways, all fumbles.
This isn't the same Tech team from a year ago that struggled to get its first rushing score until the sixth game of the season. Through three games, the Golden Eagles have seven rushing touchdowns, including four from Fisher.
Through this same point a year ago, Tech averaged 10.7 points (a 25-point improvement), 155.3 rushing yards (a 2.6-yard decrease) and 145.3 passing yards (a 120-yard increase), while allowing 52.0 points per game (a 12-point decrease), 324.7 rushing yards (a 190.4-yard decrease) and 218.0 passing yards (a 26.7-yard increase). Tech was outscored 156-32 in the first three games of 2018, while it has been outscored 120-107 in 2019, a statistic skewed by the loss at FBS Miami (Ohio).
Not to mention that the Golden Eagles have now won as many games this season as they did in the previous two seasons combined, making a marked improvement since the first and only time these two teams met back in 2017, a 41-14 win for the Leathernecks – a game where current Tech associate head coach and tight ends coach Doug Malone was WIU's co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach.
On the ground, Tech will have to watch out for running back Kendon Walker, who has rushed for a team-high 103 yards and has averaged 51.5 per game, while Deontez Thompson and Jared Drake has the two touchdowns on the ground for WIU.
Through the air, Connor Sampson has thrown for 615 yards on 58-of-102 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions, averaging 205 yards per game. George Wahee and Clint Ratkovich have been his favorite targets with 13 catches each, while Dennis Houston has the most yards and one of the receiving scores with nine catches for 191 yards. Tony Tate (10-158) has the other receiving touchdown.
Defensively, Tom Rehfeld and Zack Glisan both lead the team with 23 tackles, with Glisan, Demetri Royer and Marquis Smith recovering a fumble each. Smith also leads the team in pass breakups with four.
For the Golden Eagles, Fisher has thrown for 665 yards on 51-of-83 passing with two passing touchdowns and three interceptions. He now stands at 2,346 career passing yards, which puts him 407 yards away from tying him with Darian Stone for 10th in career passing, and 2,722 career total offensive yards, 474 from tying him with Andre Caballero for 10th in career total offense.
Darrius Stafford and Austin Hicks have created quite a receiving combo as Stafford has 10 catches for 175 yards, Hicks 10 for 171 yards and a touchdown. Tavin Kilpatrick, Justin Oden and Hunter Coleman have also hauled in touchdown catches.
Defensively, Aderick Moore leads the Golden Eagles with 29 tackles, while Seth Carlisle is close behind with 22. Chris Tucker, Tai Carter, Jamal Thompson and Heath Price have all recovered fumbles, with Carter returning one for a touchdown last week against Virginia-Wise. Shannon Fayne leads Tech in pass breakups with four.