A relatively sparse homecoming crowd of 22,157 was on hand at LP Field when Tennessee State University (7-2, 4-1) dropped its first Ohio Valley Conference football game of the season on Saturday night. The Tigers had won seven straight before falling 34-16 to Eastern Illinois University (7-1, 4-0).
TSU Freshman QB Ronald Butler connected on 24 of his 45 passes for 212 yards with two for touchdowns and no interceptions. Lavatiae Kelly was Butler’s main target, setting new career highs with seven catches for 69 yards. Still, the Tigers were outgained 567 to 338 in total yardage, as EIU’s Jimmy Garappolo went 24-of-41 for 410 yards and four TDs with one interception (by Bernell Brooks). Antonio Harper paced the Tigers defense with seven tackles (four solo), 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.
The Panthers opened the scoring on a 61-yard pass for a touchdown from Garoppolo to Keiondre Gober on the third offensive play of EIU’s first drive. Big Blue’s offense answered on its next series with a 43-yard field goal by Jamin Godfrey, set up by first downs on Tim Broughton runs of 27 and 11 yards, and a Devin Wilson 13-yard reception. The field goal pulled TSU within four at 7-3 with eight minutes left in the first quarter.
Early in the second period, EIU’s Shepard Little took a delayed hand-off up the middle of the field for a 21-yard touchdown, making the score 14-3 EIU. Eastern struck again as Garoppolo found a wide-open Jeff LePak for a 34-yard TD, finishing a 66-yard drive. Butler completed five-of-nine passes for 53 yards on the Tigers’ final drive of the half, but when his last two attempts to connect with AC Leonard fell incomplete, Godfrey’s 41-yard field goal attempt went wide right, leaving the score 21-3.
A rousing performance by the Aristocrat of Bands charged up the TSU faithful at halftime, and hopes were high for a comeback. But EIU found the end zone as Garoppolo hit Gober for a 29-yard scoring pass to put the Panthers up 28-3 with 11:30 left in the third period. TSU had a golden opportunity to score a touchdown at the EIU nine-yard line, set up by a brilliant 27-yard reception by Kelly. Butler mishandled the snap and EIU’s Pat Wertz fell on the ball giving the Panthers possession with under three minutes left in the third quarter.
TSU finally found the end zone early in the fourth quarter when Butler hit Weldon Garlington with an 11-yard completion to make the score 28-10. Butler had kept the drive alive with runs of six and 20 yards to key the drive. The Panthers answered with a nine-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, as Little ran the ball six times for 38 yards on the series. Garoppolo ended it with a 25-yard dart to LePak. The point after failed, but EIU held a commanding 34-10 lead.
Tennessee State never quit, as Butler threw passes of 17 and 25 yards before hitting Dantwaun O’Neal for a 25-yard touchdown. Godfrey missed the point after, but the score cut the EIU lead to 18 with five minutes to go in the game. The stadium had basically emptied out by that time, and the final score stayed at 34-16.
The Tigers travel to Eastern Kentucky (5-3, 3-1) for a noon kickoff on Saturday, Nov. 2. The Tigers will then host Austin Peay on the TSU campus at historic Hale Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 2 pm. Listen Live on 102.1 FM The Light.