CLARKSVILLE – Life after Will Healy might not be so bad after all.
Healy, Clarksville’s equivalent of a savior, departed for Charlotte in December 2018 after ending Austin Peay’s historically bad 29-game losing streak in 2017.
Enter Mark Hudspeth, a proven recruiter who led Louisiana-Lafayette to five New Orleans Bowl appearances from 2011-16.
The Governors did not miss a beat in Hudspeth’s Austin Peay debut at Fortera Stadium Thursday night in a 41-10 blowout of North Carolina Central. More wins may be in Hudspeth’s near future if the season opener was any indication of this team’s capabilities.
“We just take it one game at a time,” Hudspeth said. “We needed to get a game under our belt just to see where we were at. You just don’t know until you (play).”
Sure, there were dropped passes, missed tackles and personal fouls, but the good far outweighed the bad for Austin Peay against the Eagles.
The Govs’ retooled offensive line was dominant. Kyle Anderton, Hunter Schmeisser, Blake Mitchell, Bucky Williams and Seth Johnson cleared space for Kentel Williams, who finished with 139 yards on just 12 carries. The line was aided by the return of Anderton, the left tackle who had his 2018 season cut short by an injury.
“That group hasn’t worked together at all until the last four weeks,” Hudspeth said. “I thought they did a really job good at the point of attack. There are a lot of things we still need to learn, but for the first game, they played well.”
Austin Peay racked up nearly 400 yards of offense by halftime and ended the night with 563 total yards. Quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall has been given full rein of the offense, and he delivered three touchdown passes, two of which went to DeAngelo Wilson, who caught a third score off a wide receiver reverse that ended with a 40-yard bomb from Baniko Harley in the second quarter.
“I think we showed signs of how explosive this offense can be,” Oatsvall said. “When you have a running back like Kentel, when you have receivers that can go get a ball and make plays for you – we showed some good signs.”
While the offense provided most of the fireworks, Austin Peay’s defense showed why it could be stout in 2019 despite the graduation of interception leader Malik Davis (4), sack leader Jaison Williams (4.5) and leading tackler Gunnar Scholato (109).
The Govs allowed just 53 rushing yards and kept the Eagles out of the end zone until the 4:29 mark in the fourth quarter.
“Defensively, I’ve got to give it to them – they had a good night,” Hudspeth said. “When you give up (only 53) yards rushing, you’re going to have a chance to win a lot of games.”
Led by Pat Walker’s seven tackles, the Austin Peay defense combined for 10 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and six QB hurries. NC Central finished with just 192 yards of total offense.
“We played well, but we can still play better,” Walker said. “We have a lot of guys stepping up. I feel like the young guys have stepped up a lot more. We have a good rotation (on defense).”
Thursday was exactly the type of start Austin Peay wanted, and, quite frankly, the start it had to have. The schedule gets much tougher in the coming weeks.
That difficult stretch of games begins with a Sept. 7 home date against Central Arkansas, which dealt Western Kentucky a 35-28 loss in Bowling Green Thursday night. After road tests at Mercer (Sept. 14) and East Tennessee State (Sept. 21), Austin Peay will welcome the Ohio Valley Conference’s top two teams in Jacksonville State (Sept. 28) and Southeast Missouri (Oct. 12)
Fortunately for the Govs, three of their toughest contests – Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State and SEMO – all come at home. And the Jacksonville State and SEMO games are broken up by a perfectly-timed bye week.
Teams are rarely as good or as bad as they seem after Week 1, so it’s dangerous to read too much into a season opener. However, Austin Peay’s thrashing of NC Central should be enough to make fans cautiously optimistic.
No momentum appears to have been lost following Healy’s exit, and Hudspeth still has the Govs moving forward. But we’ll find out just how good the 2019 team can be once it plays stiffer competition, which should come as soon as next Saturday.
“We know (Central Arkansas) is going to be really good,” Oatsvall said. “You don’t just beat Western Kentucky and not have a good program. We’re going to prepare, try our best and have a good game plan for them.”