It wasn’t so long ago that the Austin Peay State football team was celebrating winning a football game. One game.
Winning didn’t happen often. Between 2014 and 2016, the Governors went 1-33. That’s one win and 33 losses.
On Saturday, the 2019 Governors celebrated their ninth win in 12 games by hoisting the Ohio Valley Conference championship trophy.
That’s right: Austin Peay, with a 35-7 win over Eastern Illinois, are your 2019 OVC Champions and, in turn, have earned an automatic bid into the FCS playoffs. It will be their first appearance in school history.
“You just never know,” said first-year APSU coach Mark Hudspeth. “After the spring was over and I had a chance to work with our players and see what we had, I felt like we may have a chance to do something, make some noise. As our players continue to work, they continue to show me that they’re committed.”
The Governor defense, which has been among the best in the conference all season, held the Panthers to just 3.3 yards per play and 46 passing yards – by far the fewest they have allowed this season.
Wrapping up a total of 13 tackles for loss and three sacks, the Panthers faced an average of 7.3 yards-to-go on third downs, converting on only 21.4 percent of third down attempts.
Kwame Sutton shined, leading the team with two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss and being one of only three Govs to record one of each in the game. Josephus Smith (0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL) and Shaun Whittinghill (0.5 sacks, 0.5 TFL) were the others. Pat Walker led the team with 11 tackles while Jack McDonald had 10, including six solo.
Whittinghill continued his streak of sacks, collecting at least 0.5 in six of his last seven games. He has been a key contributor to the team which he has been part of since 2015 – the height of the darkest period in recent APSU history.
It took 24 games for Whittinghill to experience his first collegiate win. Now, he is a conference champion.
“This is the greatest feeling that you could possibly have,” Whittinghil said. “This is what you sign up for when you come to play college ball. At first, it was so discouraging because we had the longest losing streak in the country at the time. We got to a point where we thought, ‘Man, we might not even win a game in our four or five years here.’ It’s crazy looking back at that and thinking where we came from to where we are now. We’re just blessed. At the end of the day, that’s it.”
Offensively, quarterback JaVaughn Craig celebrated his birthday by scoring on all five of his team’s touchdowns. He threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 57 yards and two more scores. His favorite target was wide receiver Baniko Harley, who caught six passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
Believe it or not, the game was tied in the second quarter following a 47-yard EIU rushing touchdown before Craig’s two rushing touchdowns before halftime and two passing in the third quarter.
Craig’s time as a Governor has been tumultuous, as he has gone from starter to backup and back to starter in his four years in Clarksville. Regardless, he has stayed committed and is proud to finally reap the rewards.
“Obviously coming into a winless program then freshman year going 0-11 is tough, and it’s tough on anybody that wants to win,” Craig said. “I came in with 34 guys and walked tonight on senior night with 21 guys.
“Even when it was tough, I just kept grinding it out. Once you start something you finish it, no matter what it is. You stay loyal to the commitment that you made. When I signed in 2016, I made a commitment to this university, and I never wanted to be the one to walk out on those guys or not finish what I started.
“If there’s anything I can say about my journey, it’s for people to know that God is real.”
Though the culture shift between perennial pushovers to OVC champions is complete, the Govs are far from finished. They will host the Furman Paladins on Saturday at noon in the first round of the FCS Playoffs.