For the fifth time this season UT Martin find themselves in the win column but this one had to be most nail-biting of them yet. Eastern Illinois hosted and gave the #18 Skyhawks all they could handle and even forced overtime. When it mattered most, though, quarterback Kinkead Dent and company delivered and now they are sitting pretty in the Big South-OVC standings.
The contest started slow for both teams with each punting on their first two drives. It appeared that Eastern Illinois was finally starting to open things up on their third possession with quarterback Pierce Holley leading a seven-play drive that marched the Panthers offense down into Skyhawks territory. Kicker Stone Galloway missed his 24-yard field goal try, though, and the score remained 0-0 in the early goings.
It was EIU that would get on the board first shortly after. Following another UT Martin punt, Holley piloted the first scoring drive of the afternoon. He hit receiver Justin Bowick for a 13-yard touchdown with just 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
UT Martin would find its equalizer early in the second when Holley got picked off deep on his own end of the field. It only took the visiting Skyhawks one play after the turnover. Sam Franklin, one of the FCS’ best running backs, scampered in from four yards out to tie the game at 7-7 with 9:55 until the break.
From that point the Eastern Illinois defense locked down. On the next two UT Martin possessions, EIU forced a pair of fumbles. Franklin and Narkle Leflore each lost the ball but, fortunately for the Skyhawks, the Panthers offense wasn’t faring much better. Galloway missed his second field goal attempt, this one a long 51-yard try. Eastern Illinois would regain the lead later in the frame with Holley’s second TD pass, a 10-yard strike to Eli Mirza.
The Skyhawks would have their answer in the third quarter when Dent orchestrated 75-yard drive right out of the break. He found Max Dowling for a touchdown that would tie things at 14 apiece.
For all they were doing well, however, ball control issues still plagued UT Martin well into the second half. On a big 18-yard run later in the quarter, Dent was stripped from behind and coughed the ball up for the team’s third lost fumble of the day. Once again, EIU would take over in prime field position. This time, though, they wouldn’t capitalize and would have to punt.
It wasn’t until early in the final quarter that the Skyhawks would break the tie. Dent again led a lengthy drive that went 17 plays and used up nearly eight minutes. Leflore pushed his way in for a two-yard TD and for the first time all day, UT Martin led 21-14.
As they had done all game long, Eastern Illinois responded and they did so quickly. Holley and Bowick hooked up for their second score of the day with just over two minutes to play and the two teams were gridlocked again.
It appeared as though EIU snagged its chance to win the game shortly after Bowick’s touchdown. NiJhay Burt stepped in front of a Dent pass and picked it off near midfield, setting up the Panthers for the potential winning drive. For the third time of the day, however, Galloway failed to connect on a field goal as time expired and the game went into overtime.
UT Martin received the ball first and needed just four plays to take the lead again. Dent shook off his interception and completed a seven-yard scoring pass to Dowling who dove in over the pylon. It appeared as though Dowling may have fumbled at the line but review determined he was in for the score.
Holley and his team swiftly answered once more. He found Justin Thomas for a 21-yard score and EIU opted to go for the win right then and there. On the two-point try, Holley looked to the sure-handed Bowick again. UT Martin’s defense knocked the pass down, though, and sealed the win.
Dent finished his day with 182 passing yards and two touchdowns. The usually-electric Franklin still led the ground attack with 54 yards but he was held relatively in check with no scores of his own. Eight different pass catchers had grabs for the Skyhawks with Dowling bringing in both of the touchdowns through the air.
Eastern Illinois suffers its first FCS loss of the season despite a great defensive effort. The three missed kicks certainly didn’t help things but Holley played a great game, throwing for 359 yards and four TDs. Mirza went over 100 yards receiving for the first time in 2023 but the ground game was held to just 32 yards.
It wasn’t the prettiest of victories but a win is a win and UT Martin now has five in a row. They are unbeaten in league action as well and are emerging as a favorite to nab the Big South-OVC auto bid to the postseason. Of course some big tests still remain on their schedule but as of right now, it’s getting harder and harder to pick against the Skyhawks.
UT Martin will look for six in a row against Charleston Southern after a bye week. Eastern Illinois falls to 4-2 and will face Southeast Missouri State next Saturday.