Russellville, AR (ATU) – Arkansas Tech kicked off its 96th season of intercollegiate football here Thursday night by using a strong defensive effort to post a 34-19 victory over Lambuth University in front of nearly 5,500 fans in Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field.
"What an outstanding crowd tonight, especially from the students, considering the weather conditions and the humidity," Wonder Boys Head Coach and Athletic Director Steve Mullins said. "That crowd really fired us up early in the game."
With the victory, Tech has now won seven consecutive season openers since suffering a 27-12 loss at Midwestern State in 2003. In addition, the win was also Tech's eighth straight victory on its home field dating to the final game of the 2008 season.
"I thought our defense played an outstanding game tonight. They continued to bail us out numerous times," said Mullins, who improved to 9-5 in season openers as Tech's coach. "Our turnovers kept them in the game and we missed several opportunities to put points on the board and you can't do that."
Tech's offense needed the defense's help in Thursday's opener as the Wonder Boys committed five turnovers, including losing three fumbles and throwing two interceptions.
"We looked like a team playing our first game. We had a lot of mental mistakes and we kept beating ourselves," Mullins said. "Now we have to go out and learn and improve in several areas."
On the night, Tech's defense held Lambuth's offense to 212 yards on 47 plays, including limiting the Eagles to 11 yards rushing on 24 attempts. In addition, Tech's defense collected five sacks and nine tackles for loss.
While Tech's offense struggled with turnovers, Tech's defense forced three turnovers and scored two touchdowns for the game, including blocking a punt for a score.
Tech opened the game's scoring just a little over four minutes into the contest as sophomore receiver Roger Jackson (Siloam Springs, Ark.) caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from senior Robert Sagerian (San Diego, Calif.). The ensuing extra point by sophomore kicker Matt Bahsoon (Fort Smith, Ark.) gave Tech a 7-0 lead.
Following Lambuth's next possession, senior defensive back Antonio Charles (Sarasota, Fla.) blocked a punt by Nate O'Jibway that was scooped up and returned 38 yards for a score by redshirt junior defensive lineman Garret Ratcliff (Summit, Miss.). The extra point attempt by Bahsoon was missed to give the Wonder Boys a 13-0 lead.
Charles finished the night with six total tackles, including a two tackles for a loss and a sack to go along with his blocked punt.
The Eagles, who are ranked seventh in the Preseason NAIA Coaches' Poll and are in the process of transitioning to the NCAA Division II level, got on the scoreboard in the second quarter as Rod Jefferson caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from David Ingram to drop Tech's lead to 13-7. Jefferson's score came six plays are senior receiver Jarrod Martin (Crossett, Ark.) fumbled the ball on the Eagles 20-yard line after catching a six-yard pass from sophomore James Landry (Belle Rose, La.).
Tech took advantage of another Lambuth turnover to increase its lead to 20-7 midway through the second quarter as Sagerian connected with junior receiver Draper Demouchet (Breaux Bridge, La.) for a 13-yard touchdown. Demouchet's score came two plays after junior defensive back Joe Means (Cordova, Tenn.) picked off an Ingram pass and returned it 25 yards.
Lambuth used another big play early in the third quarter to pull within 20-13 following an 83-yard touchdown pass from Ingram to Marquis Williams. Williams' score came three plays after Bahsoon had missed a 28-yard field goal on Tech's opening possession of the second half. Bahsoon's missed field goal had come after the Wonder Boys had driven 44 yards in seven plays.
"Our defense really only gave up two really big plays tonight and some of that credit goes to Lambuth," the 14th-year Tech coach said. "They have some very good football players."
Tech opened the fourth quarter by pulling out to a 27-13 lead following a 1-yard touchdown run by senior running back Cody Burns (Pine Bluff, Ark.). Burns' run completed a 15-play, 70-yard drive by the Wonder Boys.
On the ensuing possession, Lambuth came right back and drove 60 yards in six plays and pushed within 27-19 following a 13-yard touchdown pass from Ingram to Jefferson. The two-point conversion attempt by the Eagles failed to keep Tech's lead at eight points.
Tech's defense once again got into the scoring act late in the fourth quarter as senior defensive end Derandus Frye (New Orleans, La.) forced a fumble by Williams that was recovered and returned five yards by senior defensive back RonDerrick Jackson (Bossier City, La.) for a touchdown to increase Tech's lead to 33-19. The extra point attempt by Bahsoon was good to increase Tech's lead to 34-19 with 3:27 left in the game.
While Tech's defense held Lambuth to 212 yards of offense, the Wonder Boys finished the game with 321 yards of offense, including gaining 185 of those yards in the first half. On the night, Tech's ground game picked up 160 yards on 44 carries, with Sagerian and Burns each gaining 41 yards in the win.
Tech's passing game was a work in progress most of the night as Sagerian and Landry combined to go 13-for-29 passing for 161 yards and two interceptions and two touchdowns.
"I thought James and Robert did some good things and I thought our offensive line provided some good protection," Mullins said. "The one disappoint was we had too many dropped balls by our receivers and that needs to get better."
For the game, Sagerian was 9-for-23 passing for 107 yards and had both of Tech's interceptions and both of the team's touchdown passes, while Landry was 4-for-6 passing for 54 yards and gained 35 yards on the ground.
Martin caught three passes for 61 yards, while Jackson had four receptions for 33 yards in the loss.
Meanwhile, Ingram was 13-for-20 passing for 201 yards for the Eagles and had three touchdown passes and one interception, while Jefferson caught five passes for 87 yards and Williams had two catches for 80 yards in the loss.
One of bright spots for the Wonder Boys was the production of Demouchet on his punt and kickoff returns. For the game, Demouchet returned three punts for 53 yards and had four kickoff returns for 110 yards.
"I thought Draper did a great job on his returns tonight," the Tech coach added.