Three years ago, Austin Peay’s football program was in a rough spot. Mired in a 27-game losing streak, it made its way from Tennessee up to Ohio to Nippert Stadium to play in one of those “payout” games, taking on FBS Cincinnati in a Thursday night, season-opening game nobody expected to be close.
But with minutes remaining in that game on Aug. 31, 2017, APSU was within six points of tying the Bearcats and ending an excruciating losing streak. And in that game, several future cornerstone players of the 2020-21 Governors’ program took their first snaps wearing the Red and White.
This weekend, the Governors return to Nippert Stadium for the first time since that career-opening night. Players like HERO Sports All-Americans CB Kordell Jackson and WR DeAngelo Wilson and teammates QB Jeremiah Oatsvall, RB Ahmaad Tanner, DL Matthew Gayle and others return to Cincinnati where as young players in 2017 in their debuts, they helped provide a glimpse of what was about to happen in the program.
In 2017, less than three weeks after they helped battle Cincinnati into the fourth quarter, the Govs broke the losing streak … and since then, they’ve won 24 games, captured the school’s first Ohio Valley Conference football title since the Jimmy Carter Administration, and set a school record for wins (11) in a program that had never won more than eight games in its 90-year history.
This week, win or lose, those same players won’t be able to forget that trip they took as freshmen.
“I can just go back to the first time I stepped foot on the campus, and Coach (Will) Healy said that in four years, we’d be a national competitor,” Oatsvall told HERO Sports. “And Austin Peay had just gone 0-11. He said we’re going to do this, eventually. And we had a great first year (eight wins), and the next year wasn’t up to par for what we wanted (five wins) but when was the last time Austin Peay had won five? And then last year was a historic run.”
Since that time, Healy has moved on to become head coach at FBS Charlotte, coach Mark Hudspeth took the program another step last year with 11 wins and co-champs of the OVC, and this year, Marquase Lovings is heading up the program.
This fall, the Governors kicked off the season by playing Central Arkansas on national television in “Week Zero”, which is the description given to the timeframe of the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Ala. Even with several players out because of exposure to CoVID-19, the Govs were leading for much of the ballgame against the Southland Conference co-champions from Arkansas.
Three years ago, APSU’s incoming recruiting class could never have imagined it would have a national stage for its season opener, but that’s how far things have come for the program.
The town of Clarksville, Tenn. has come alive, rallying around a now-stout program that hinted of it for the first time in Cincinnati three years ago. This program has gone from one nobody in the FCS paid attention to — an afterthought even within its own league — to a program that went on the road in the FCS Playoffs last year and throttled a very good Big Sky Conference team at Sacramento State.
Because … you know … when this group of players signed as freshmen in 2017, they knew they’d be playing in postseason games in California two weeks before Christmas.
“Being recruited by Austin Peay, they weren’t traditionally good,” said Kordell Jackson, the HERO Sports All-American who posted 7 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass broken up in that season opener in 2017. “Basically, coming into the program, this is what we all wanted to do and this is what we expected. And I can’t do ‘nothing but thank God for it.
“During recruiting, I saw the potential we had, the guys coming in. The lightbulb came on in that Cincinnati game, that we were in a game (late) against an FBS team. We really competed with them. Each game that year was unbelievable, and our fan base … the support system we had that year … that’s the big reason. We broke the attendance record and there was so much buzz around the Clarksville (Tenn.) area. We knew we could compete for championships after that.”
This weekend’s game at Cincinnati is the final one of the abbreviated three-game fall schedule the Governors put together. The program started with the aforementioned kickoff classic with UCA, and then booked two FBS games with Pitt and the Bearcats. Regardless of how this wraps, this fall is just a taste test for a program ranked in the HERO Sports preseason Top 25 back in May. In the spring, if all goes as the FCS hopes, Austin Peay looks forward to competing for another OVC championship and a playoff berth.
That long road to prominence began with a spark of hope at Nippert Stadium back in 2017, when a moribund program became the FCS bounce back story of the year.
“To see it happen like this?,” Oatsvall added. “It’s because of how hard this team has worked this past three years. Guys chose Austin Peay who could have gone other places. We chose a program that wasn’t a national contender then, a program that people told us was a laughing stock. And now, because of the guys believing … to look back and see what has happened … this is what we saw when there was no evidence.”