By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Jason Simpson has beaten Mississippi State before, but he’s a realist when faced with trying to do it again.
These are much different circumstances for Simpson, whose UT Martin football team will visit Starkville on Saturday. It’s MSU’s homecoming, and the Bulldogs (4-4) are expected to roll against the Division I-AA Skyhawks (5-3).
“Individual battles, that’s where the downfalls are in these type of games,” Simpson said. ” … I’m not going to be Mary Poppins here and tell you there’s really any place that we have an advantage in one-on-one matchups.”
Regardless of the outcome, Simpson is just happy to be in Starkville this weekend. He began his college career at MSU, playing baseball and football. After enrolling in the spring of 1990, a foot injury prevented Simpson from ever taking the field for either team.
He transferred to Southern Miss and settled into a starting role on the baseball team. In 1994, the Golden Eagles played a pair of games at Dudy Noble Field, where Simpson was the goat one night and the hero the next.
Playing the outfield, he committed a key error in a loss, but the next day he hit the game-winning home run in the 11th inning.
The Ellisville native will occasionally drop by the MSU campus when traveling to his parents’ house in Hattiesburg. He stays in touch with former MSU baseball coach Ron Polk, who spoke to his UT Martin team prior to its 2011 season opener.
“I’ve still got a lot of memories there in Starkville,” Simpson said.
Playing MSU was something Simpson wanted to do, so he contacted athletics director Scott Stricklin, who was a student at State the same time as Simpson.
Simpson brings in a team that has been a solid presence in the Ohio Valley Conference since he took over as head coach in 2006. Their three losses this year have come by a combined seven points, and they boast a balanced offense that ranks 11th nationally in total yards (440.9 per game) in Division I-AA.
QB Derek Carr has thrown for 1,817 yards and 18 touchdowns, and running back Jason McNair has gained 615 yards. McNair is the nephew of the late Steve McNair, who starred at Alcorn State and in the NFL.
UT Martin has been lights out in the red zone, scoring on 38 of 39 trips with 30 TDs. That’s an area the Skyhawks struggled in last season.
“Nobody can go score four touchdowns going 12 plays. You’ll screw it up before you do,” Simpson said. “So we just kind of find our niche and start trying to play fast, trying to run the same plays out of a bunch of different formations.”
UT Martin has put a scare into an SEC team before, playing Auburn tough in 2008 before falling on the Plains, 37-20.