The John Merritt Classic, which commenced in 1999, is a tribute to one of the greatest coaches not only in Tennessee State’s history but also in the annals of college football history.
The 23rd edition of the event will feature the SIAC’s Lane College against Tennessee State, marking just the second meeting between the schools in the past 84 years.
Tennessee State limps into this year’s Merritt Classic at 0-3, fresh oﬀ a 49-6 shellacking at the hands of Middle Tennessee State.
Despite the team’s winless mark, outside of the beatdown in Murfreesboro, TSU has been very competitive in its other two games, coming up just short in a 36-29 loss against Eastern Washington — that came down to the last two possessions of the ball game. And a 16-3 loss to In the Southern Heritage Classic where the Tigers also gave mighty Jackson State the toughest challenge they have had this season. TSU’s defense kept the vaunted JSU oﬀense out of the endzone until 2:20 left in the contest.
Austin Peay transfer Draylen Ellis helms a Tennessee State oﬀense that is averaging a meager 12.6 ppg and just 296 yards of oﬀense per contest. Though the oﬀensive unit has talent — outside of the Eastern Washington game, and even that was in spurts — TSU has not put together enough stretches of competent football to consistently move the ball down the ﬁeld and score points.
Defensively it has been an up-and-down year for head coach Eddie George’s team. The Tigers seemed to have issues with the Eastern Washington offensive attack, particularly with receivers in coverage and getting very little pressure on EWU signal caller Gunner Talkington, giving him all the time he wanted to complete 29/46 passes for 348 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions.
The defense looked faster, more aggressive, and much more physical against Jackson State. Though they surrendered 418 yards of oﬀense, Jackson State limited them to just 16 points and forced two turnovers, something they could not do against EWU.
Lane College (1-2, 0-0 SIAC) enters the matchup fresh oﬀ a 38-6 lambasting of Clark Atlanta. The Dragons accumulated 474 yards of total oﬀense, with quarterback Michael Huntley (21/29, 317 yards, 4 TDs) and receivers Virgil Young (6 rec, 126 yards, TD) and Keith Johnson (4 rec, 92 yards, 2 TDs ) all enjoying their best statistical day of the young season.
The Lane oﬀense averages 26.67 ppg and 359 yards of total productivity. Huntley was also eﬀective in the dragon’s opener. A 48-42 loss to the SWAC’s Arkansas-Pine Bluﬀ, throwing for 328 yards on 15/21 passing and 3 TDs. The Dragon defense allows 22.67 points per contest.
Redshirt senior defensive end Andrew Farmer leads the team with 25 tackles (18 solos, seven assisted) and tied with Tyshun Gaiter for the team lead with 3.0 sacks. The unit’s best eﬀort of the season came in the team’s 14-0 loss against Benedict College. Benedict was held to just 202 yards of total oﬀense and just ten ﬁrst downs. However, the Lane oﬀense did them no favors ﬂoundering to generate a mere 92 yards of oﬀense, and they, along with the special teams, contributed to the Benedict cause with two game-changing turnovers.
The ﬁrst was a Huntley fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by Loober Denelus in the endzone for the ﬁrst score of the game that put Benedict up 7-0. The next gaﬀe occurred in the fourth quarter when after forcing a Benedict three-and-out, Walter Tatum fumbled the ensuing punt, which was recovered at the Lane seven-yard line. Benedict turned that into 7 points with a Deondr Duehart 2-yard touchdown that sealed the game.
Why Tennessee State will win
Draylen Ellis will be returning from the ankle injury that he suﬀered against Middle Tennessee State in the second quarter, having to be replaced by Auburn transfer Chayil Garnett. If he cannot go or is limited, there will be a heavy dose of Devon Starling, who although has seen his production and carries decline since his 207 yards in the opener against Eastern Washington, will be called upon to pick up the slack.
The Tennessee State oﬀensive line will be able to move the Lane defense up front and create holes for Starling. Gleason Sprewell and the Tigers defense will shake oﬀ the nightmarish images of the parade of Blue Raiders getting into the endzone two weeks ago and will be able to get to Michael Huntley and disrupt the Lane oﬀense, causing it to look more like they did against Benedict and less as they appeared versus UAPB and Clark.
Why Lane will win
Lane will be able to keep Michael Huntley clean and upright, as Tennessee State only has four sacks on the season. With time to survey the ﬁeld, Huntley will be able to take advantage of mistakes the young TSU secondary could make. This is a defense that has allowed 278 yards through the air per game this season. It will be the Dragons who are getting to the quarterback, as the Tigers have allowed 14 sacks already this season, which will make it tough on Ellis, particularly if he is not at 100%, or Garnett and an already inconsistent Tennessee State oﬀensive unit.
Tennessee State 41, Lane 15
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