Eddie George made a triumphant return to Nissan Stadium on Saturday.
The former Tennessee Titans All-Pro running back won his first game as Tennessee State football coach on his third try, leading the Tigers to a 41-7 victory over Kentucky State in the 22nd John Merritt Classic.
George attempted to escape his players on the sidelines in the last minute, but they managed to track him down and spray him with ice water during the celebration.
It was the 26th consecutive victory against Kentucky State (1-2) for the Tigers (1-2) and the first meeting between the two HBCU programs since 1984.
Here’s what we learned in the game:
For the first time, George named a starting quarterback before kick-off. On Tuesday, George said Geremy Hickbottom would start, and the transfer from Grambling State responded by having the best game of his TSU career.
Hickbottom was responsible for four touchdowns in 16 minutes in the first half.
He threw touchdown passes for 10, 46 and 18 yards, then rushed out of the backfield for 13 yards.
His only blow was an interception deep into Kentucky State territory midway through the second quarter.
Hickbottom, who started last week against Jackson State, completed 15 of 25 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
Deveon Bryant, who started the final final games of the spring season, replaced Hickbottom in the fourth quarter.
Rahman rocks Thorobreds
TSU tight end and special teams star Rodell Rahmaan won in a five-game streak.
It all started when Bowling Green’s transfer caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hickbottom in TSU’s last offensive play in the first quarter.
On the next kick-off, Rahmaan took a big hit on Kentucky State’s Brett Sylve comeback to 20 on the Thorobreds.
Four plays later, Rahmaan blocked a Kentucky State punt, then passed a flat pass on the next play and ran for 46 yards for a touchdown. The score put TSU ahead 17-0.
Stuff the race
George spent much of the week rehashing the Kentucky State racing game. The Thorobreds came in 23rd in NCAA Division II on Saturday for rushing (211 yards per game).
One of the few bright spots for TSU coming into the game was its run defense, and the Tigers were able to thwart Kentucky State’s multitude of running backs for most of the game.
Kentucky State ran for just 22 yards on 12 carries in the first half and finished with just 84 yards on 31 carries.
The Thorobreds didn’t cross the 50-yard line until there were 12 minutes and 10 seconds left and after TSU began to replace players in defense.
TSU running back Devon Starling, who led the Ohio Valley Conference in rushing in the spring, has passed 100 yards for the first time this season. He finished with 142 yards on 23 carries.
Zita takes a step forward
TSU kicker Antonio Zita’s 34-yard field goal in the third quarter was the 50th of his career.
The Lincoln County junior became only the fourth player in OVC history to reach this mark.
Zita could have added the No. 51, but missed a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
He is now 3-for-5 on the season.
TSU will play its first conference game at 2 p.m. Saturday in Southeast Missouri.
SEMO fell to 0-3 on Saturday after losing to Missouri, 59-28.
TSU lost to SEMO, 46-23, at Hale Stadium on April 11 in the final game of the spring season
Contact Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.