TN Sports 360

Turnovers spoil Walden’s debut with Govs

APSU Athletics Communications

By Colby Wilson

APSU Athletics Communications

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. —In the first game of the Scotty Walden era for Austin Peay, the Govs dropped a 27-21 decision despite more than doubling up Tennessee Tech in total yardage in a Sunday afternoon battle at Tucker Stadium.

This was the only game competed in OVC play this weekend due to inclement weather forcing the postponement of much of the FCS schedule. It also served as the spring opener for both programs. The story of the game was the short fields battled by the Austin Peay defense—seven Tennessee Tech drives started in Austin Peay territory, including five inside the Austin Peay 25-yard line.

After a snap snafu gave Tennessee Tech the ball inside the Austin Peay 20 for its first possession, the Govs barely gave an inch to the Golden Eagle offense, forcing a field goal attempt that missed wide.

And with that, the Govs were on the march. Ahmaad Tanner for eight yards. Ahmaad Tanner for four yards. Tanner again for nine. And then Draylen Ellis dropped back and fired to DeAngelo Wilson for a 49-yard gain to bring the Govs deep into Tennessee Tech territory.

Two Tanner carries and an Ellis rush led to a big fourth-down decision and the Govs went the aggressive route; Tanner’s number got called again but this time the Golden Eagles were ready and stonewalled him at the line of scrimmage. The first touchdown of the Scotty Walden era would have to wait. 

The Governor defense stood tall again on a short field following an interception. With Tennessee Tech taking over on the 18-yard line, a Jack McDonald sack on third down snuffed out any chance of a touchdown and led to a 25-yard field goal with 1:03 remaining in the first quarter.

At quarters end, the scoreboard read 3-0 Tennessee Tech but Austin Peay had outgained the Golden Eagles by more than 80 yards (102-21). With a freshman under center and three other freshmen starting on offense, that could hardly be considered a poor first quarter of live action for Walden’s young charges.

Brian Snead took the first handoff of the second quarter 19 yards into Golden Eagle territory; two plays later, Ellis hit CJ Evans Jr. in the slot for 20 yards and had the Govs knocking on the red zone for the second time.

Two Snead handoffs left the Govs in third-and-long, but the down and distance wound up not mattering when Ellis placed a perfect back-shoulder fade into the hands of Baniko Harley from 22 yards away. Six points Govs; first touchdown of Ellis’ career and first score for the Govs under Walden in the books.

The reason the young offense could take a quarter before getting on the board without more than a cursory hiccup to the plans was because the Austin Peay defense was just insanely good the entire first half. Never was this more apparent than the next possession. On first down, Kordell Jackson anticipated the play, jumped into the backfield and helped Matthew Gayle wrestle Metrius Fleming to the ground for a seven-yard loss. On second down, TyQaze Leggs met David Gist in the backfield for a loss. Third and 18, Gayle beat the man across from him on a speed rush into the backfield to haul down Bailey Fisher for a sack.

Three times in the first half—twice off special teams issues, once off a turnover—the Golden Eagles took over inside the Austin Peay 25-yard line. Those three drives yielded six total yards and the aforementioned three points after a Koby Perry sack ended a fourth-down attempt by the Golden Eagles at the Governor 21-yard line. The Golden Eagles finished the first half with a grand total of 26 yards offense, including just two yards on the ground, to take a 7-3 lead into halftime.

When the Govs took over following a Golden Eagle punt for their first drive of the second half, an Ellis loss dropped the Govs all the way to their own one-yard line. But on third-and-nine, Ellis hit Wilson for 11 yards and a first down, then scrambled for 13 and 20 yards on back-to-back plays to take the Govs into Tennessee Tech territory.

Two plays later, it was an Ellis-to-Wilson connection that once again brought the Govs inside the 20, this time for 17 yards. On the next play Ellis called his own number, made a couple of players miss and somersaulted into the end zone 16 yards later for his first career rushing score.

The Govs kept coming defensively. Even when Tennessee Tech managed a big play, like a 41-yard catch-and-run from Fisher to Fleming, Fisher had to dance out of the pocket and keep the play alive, eluding defenders until Fleming could shake loose. Austin Peay’s push up front was a constant theme to the contest. The Govs would finish the day with seven sacks and 16 total tackles for loss, both single-game program records.

Fleming’s big play, coupled with a roughing the passer call on the next play, put the Golden Eagles deep into Austin Peay territory, with Tennessee Tech cutting into the deficit on a 13-yarder from Fisher to Fleming.

With Austin Peay’s defense spending so much time on the field, and often in such dangerous situations with their backs to the end zone, Tennessee Tech began to find more room to maneuver. The Golden Eagles also began shortening Fisher’s drops in order to reduce the amount of punishment Austin Peay’s pass rush kept putting on him.

A second Tennessee Tech interception put the Golden Eagles at Austin Peay’s 22-yard line late in the third quarter. A Tennessee Tech hold wiped off a big play inside the 10, and a roughing the passer penalty on Austin Peay negated a Johnathon Edwards interception.

The fourth quarter began with Tennessee Tech on the Austin Peay 10-yard line for a second-and-three. On a third-and-goal situation, Gist took a direct snap and found paydirt to give the Golden Eagles their first lead since the first quarter.

A short field for another Golden Eagle possession was not what on the mind of anyone wearing red to start that stretch, but a fumble on the kick return gave the ball back over to the Golden Eagles on Austin Peay’s 21-yard line. Another direct snap to Gist from three yards out made it a 24-14 game with 10:15 to play.

A fourth-quarter 32-yard field goal added to Tennessee Tech’s final tally.

The Governors mounted a late rally when Bryce Robinson marched the offense down the field, accounting for 11 yards on the ground and 48 through the air, the final 14 recorded after landing in the mitts of Wilson for his first score. With 12 seconds left, it was 27-21 and time for an on-side kick.

Jackson pulled off the onside recovery of Ashton Dodd’s perfectly-placed boot, and the Govs had one more chance. The Govs picked up 19 yards on a Robinson-Wilson-Evans-Harley bit of trickeration, putting the Govs on the Golden Eagle 33-yard line. Robinson lofted a pass into the end zone, but the wind pushed it too far and the Govs simply ran out of time.

The Govs return home next week to welcome Tennessee State into Fortera Stadium for a 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 28 contest against the Tigers. It will be Austin Peay’s first home game since Nov 30, 2019 in the FCS Playoffs against Furman—a period of 457 days.  

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