By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Several players had career nights as Tennessee Tech tried to make a tremendous comeback in the fourth quarter, but Eastern Illinois was able to capitalize on costly errors and its own passing game to take a 52-38 victory Saturday night at Tucker Stadium.
Tech drops to 0-5 on the season, but the prognosis is definitely bright for the future.
"We had a lot of great individual efforts tonight," Tech head coach Dewayne Alexander said. "I still sit here and never question the effort of our young men. They kept playing to the very end. We go for an onside kick trying to win the football game. There were some great performances and these men right here played outstanding."
True freshman quarterback Bailey Fisher threw for 383 yards on 27-for-41 passing and four touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, Fisher threw for 243 yards on 14-of-22 passing and three touchdowns. The 383-yard total puts the rookie in fifth all-time in single-game passing and the most by a true freshman. He was named the First Tennessee Bank-Special Olympics Player of the Game.
Fisher echoed the sentiment, "It's easy when I have guys around me that make the plays they do. I still can't have the turnovers I had in the fourth quarter, because those were critical moments. If we go in and score, we're down by seven. Defense gets the ball back and we score again, it's a tie game. I guess the numbers look good, but I still hold myself accountable."
He continued, "The coaches have told me that I need to get better and better. Like I said, the guys are making plays. It's not anything I'm doing. Fifty-fifty balls, they're going up in the air and making plays. Josh is over here making guys miss in the open field. I throw for three yards and he's turning it into a 15-yard gain. It's really more about the guys around me."
Tre Lamb holds the single game record with 481 yards against Southeast Missouri in 2012, while Lee Sweeney threw for 437 yards against SEMO in 2006 as a redshirt freshman. Grant Swallows (412, vs. Jacksonville State, 2001) and Robert Craft (410, vs. Jacksonville State, 2002) are the only other Golden Eagle signal callers to rank above him.
"We had been practicing that play all week," Cunningham said. "I had good throws and we knew we were going to use it. I had one chance at it, so I had to make it count."
In all, Tech's offense put together 428 yards through the air, the most passing yards the Golden Eagles have had in a single game since 2012 and the third-most in program history.
In addition to Cunningham's passing touchdown, he also caught seven passes for a career-high 95 yards and Tech's first touchdown of the contest. Jeremiah Edwards also flirted with the century mark, hauling in eight passes for 94 yards and two scores.
Tech finished the contest with 526 yards of total offense, the most since 542 yards against Austin Peay in November 2014.
On defense, Josh Poplar made 20 stops in the contest, which tied him for third in the single-game record with Corey Reed (vs. UT Martin in 2008), Broderick Jamison (vs. Eastern Kentucky in 2007) and Josh Symonette (vs. Samford in 1998). Poplar trailed Barry Wilmore (21 vs. Austin Peay in 1985) and Jim Youngblood (23 vs. UT Martin in 1972) for the record.
Poplar, who missed 2017 with medical issues, was limited in the first couple games, but made 13 stops last week against Jacksonville State, then 20 on Saturday – both setting career highs.
"We were down some personnel on defense," Alexander said. "Short a couple of linebackers, and my hat's off to EIU. They have a lot of really good offensive players. Hollins is probably one of the best offensive players in the league and he's done it against every team he's played. He did it against us last year with three touchdowns and 120-something receiving yards. He's very hard to defend."
Poplar added, "I can't use (the limited play) as an excuse. I had to go out there and play for my teammates. We're shorthanded, but again we can't use that as an excuse. If I'm out on the field, I have to be productive. I'm just going to go out there and give it my all. I wasn't even worried about the stats – I was just trying to get their offense off the field."
However, the Golden Eagles had a tough time containing EIU's aerial attack as Harry Woodbery threw for 339 yards and five touchdowns on 32-of-49 passing. Alexander Hollins caught nine passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns, while James Sheehan has seven catches for 79 yards and two scores.
The Panthers (1-4, 1-1 Ohio Valley Conference) weren't toothless on the ground though as Isaiah Johnson ran for 161 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, while Jamal Scott ran 12 times for 85 yards and a score.
Tech (0-5, 0-2 OVC) returns to action on Saturday as it hosts Southeast Missouri, starting at 6 p.m.