By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It's simple to type out the result, describe the big plays and just simply knock out a game story.
But Tennessee Tech's 27-24 win over Murray State on Saturday wasn't just any other game.
This was a statement, evidence in what head coach Dewayne Alexander planned to achieve with the Golden Eagles as he earned his first win as Tech's coach.
As the players and coaches celebrated on the field and later in the locker room, there was not a dry eye. After all this is something they had worked for since December 22 of last year. The mission was to bring pride back to the Golden Eagle program, to make the university, its students and alumni and the community proud of the Tech team again.
While the results weren't visible in the win column, coaches and those in the know across the Ohio Valley Conference recognized it. Tech is doing it the right way, they all said.
All the Golden Eagles needed was proof – now with a one standing in the win column.
"This team has consistently done the things we have asked them to do in the face of a lot of adversity," Alexander said. "They keep coming back every week. Every Monday morning, we're on the field at 7 a.m. and they have answered the bell every week. As long as you continue to answer the bell, good things will happen, because you're doing things right.
"We just needed to get into a game and have good things happen. I'll tell you what I have on my sheet and what we told our guys before we started the game – 'Don't wait for it to happen. Make it happen.' You go out there and be the difference in the game. You go make the play."
An 0-8 record against some of the toughest opponents in the country, including five ranked teams, shaded that view in many ways, but the Golden Eagles never gave up.
Case In point – senior defensive back A.J. Flemister. As the campaign wore on and losses mounted, the Chattanooga product never wavered. He spent his time working, getting better on and off the field and kept fighting.
"It brought me to tears, honestly," Flemister said on the win. "We have worked so hard. We come out here and work every day. We worked and kept going, acting like the last week didn't happen. It meant the world to me."
But the senior continued with an earnest answer, humbly explaining that the win wasn't for him.
"I was driving home earlier in the week and I thought about it," Flemister said. "I didn't want to win this game for myself. I wanted to win for these freshmen, so it could kickstart them and help them continue to win later on down the road. They won't have to worry any more about losing, because they're going to be winners. I wanted them to know what it was like to win.
"Earlier in my career, we won games. I knew how it felt. That haven't experienced that. Now they know what it meant to win a college football game."
That experience goes a long, long way.
It was that experience that helped Flemister intercept a pass from one of the conference's top quarterbacks, Drew Anderson, and keep the Racers to just two passing touchdowns.
And the freshman class continued to gain experience, shown as true freshman quarterback Bailey Fisher ran for 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, then passed for 228 yards and two scores on 21-of-34 passing. Fisher was named the First National Bank of Tennessee-Special Olympics Player of the Game.
Then there were the inspirations.
The previous evening, junior Darrius Stafford was at the TTU Sports Hall of Fame inductions with his fellow teammates, watching as one of his high school coaches – former Golden Eagle Larry Shipp – was inducted into the Class of 2018.
Stafford followed suit, catching six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown – the first 100-yard receiving game of the season and the first in over a year as Dontez Byrd (also on-hand Saturday for the Robert Hill Johnson Award presentation) caught five passes for 111 yards against Tennessee State on Oct. 28 last year.
He wasn't the only receiver to haul in a score as Melvin Holland Jr. got it all started with a 20-yard touchdown catch from Fisher on the first drive of the game.
"We've been sitting around waiting for bad things to happen or waiting on someone else to go make a play before we get going," Alexander said. "Look, you've got to go for it right out of the gate and make it happen. We took the first drive, made a fourth-down conversion to keep the drive alive and scored. We had a great kickoff and they tried a double pass and threw it out of bounds on the 4-yard line.
"The defense goes in and gets a stop and they have to punt out of their own end zone. We got a short field and we did what good offenses do when they get a short field – you score touchdowns."
Nick Madonia also went 2-for-3 on field goals, helping the Golden Eagles stay just out of reach.
Hard work, effort, dedication – it all came to fruition on Saturday. Tech had three players with double-digit tackles, led by Josh Poplar with 13, Deontay Wilson with 12 and Jake Warwick with 10. In addition to Flemister's pick, Shannon Fayne also came up with an interception. Seth Huner also recovered a fumble to add to Murray's woes.
The Golden Eagles also did that by drawing penalties as the Racers were flagged 12 times for 70 yards, adding frustration to the other side.
Anderson ended the game with 340 yards, completing an efficient 34 of his 41 passes. D.J. Penick and Malik Honeycutt caught the touchdown strikes, while Anderson ran for a score among his team-leading eight carries for 27 yards.
"I can honestly say I would be just as proud of this team even if the scored ended up the other way around," Alexander said. "I wouldn't have felt any different, because these guys – and I felt this way last week and the week before – have really bought in to doing the things it takes. We just needed something to validate and build some confidence. We needed a team win, complement each other on offense and defense. We really haven't done that well all year."
As the final horn sounded, the 11-game losing streak became history.
The task now is to keep building, keep the momentum going as the program tries to achieve more.
The Homecoming win on Saturday was proof that it can happen.
The burden of the winless season prior to Saturday was tough, but the relief was great. The outpouring of joy on the field and in the locker room showed that.
"It wears on them," Alexander said. "I've been doing this for 30 years and I've taken over for teams that have had to try to find that first win. Been there, done that, but it does start mounting each week as it goes. It feels good, especially to get it on Homecoming with so many former players back. I'm very proud of our players and our coaching staff. We've spent a lot of time together and they've stayed the course. We just keep working and say to our players, 'We've got to get better.'
"We believe in these guys. Now we just need to finish this season strong. This is how you've got to go play football. You played great today, but you've got to play that every week in this league. But practice on Monday? We may have a little pep in our step Monday."
Tech (1-8, 1-5 OVC) will try to keep that going next Saturday as the Golden Eagles travel to UT Martin for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information