NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On Saturday, the No. 21 ranked Tennessee State football team will take on No. 2 ranked Eastern Illinois in what will be a matchup of one of the nation’s best defenses against the country’s most high-powered offense.
TSU (7-1, 4-0 OVC) and EIU (6-1, 3-0 OVC) are the only undefeated teams in Ohio Valley Conference play and the winner of the Tigers’ homecoming will control its own destiny in the race for a league title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Big Blue enters the pivotal matchup riding a seven-game winning streak and fresh off of a, 29-15, victory at UT Martin last Saturday. In that game, freshman quarterback Ronald Butler filled in for Mike German admirably, completing 11-of-19 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown. Junior Ryan Mitchell was Butler’s favorite target, as the receiver caught five passes for 84 yards and a score.
Mitchell has been TSU’s most prolific wide receiver so far in 2013, securing 21 passes for a team-best 422 yards and five touchdowns. Mitchell’s 20.1 yards per reception is tops in the OVC with receivers with at least 20 catches.
While the offense put up enough points to win last weekend on the road, TSU’s defense stole the show, and only allowed 4.1 yards per play, recorded 12 tackles for loss (five sacks), tallied two takeaways and forced 19 Skyhawk penalties.
The catalyst for the TSU defense this season has been junior Daniel Fitzpatrick. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native was recently unanimously named OVC Defensive Player of the Week after recording nine tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown at Martin. The safety is also tied for the lead in the FCS in picks with five, and four of those have come in his last three games.
The Tigers’ defense is second in the nation in total defense (264 yards per game), first in passing efficiency defense (86.77), second in scoring defense (13 points per contest), second in third down conversion percentage defense (27.8%), and sixth in takeaways (21).
Big Blue will face its biggest test of the year when the Panthers’ high-flying attack comes to LP Field. EIU is first in the FCS in total offense (595.6 yards per game), passing offense (407.6 yards per contest) and scoring (48 points per game).
Preseason OVC Offensive Player of the Year Jimmy Garoppolo has led the Panther assault and is tops in the country in passing yards per game and total offense, averaging 390.7 and 394.9, respectively. His 31 passing touchdowns are seven more than the nation’s second-highest thrower.
The senior’s main weapon has been receiver Erik Lora who is third in the FCS with 928 yards and first in touchdowns 13.
Defensively, the Panthers are paced by Jordan Wickliffe who leads the team with 56 tackles and is first in the OVC with four forced fumbles.
TSU is 7-8 all-time versus EIU, but hasn’t faced the Panthers since 2011 – an, 18-17, Big Blue win.
The Tigers look to even the series and inch ever closer to their first NCAA Tournament since 1999 when they take on EIU at 4 p.m. on Saturday at LP Field.