By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
For more than a month, the Colonels have known that one more setback would more than likely end any realistic chance they have of winning an Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Since a loss at Eastern Illinois (Sept. 28), they’ve been in must-win mode.
And, so far, they’ve responded to the challenge.
EKU (5-3, 3-1 OVC) has rolled to three-straight victories, out-scoring their opponents 93-20. But, all those wins have come against teams at the bottom of the conference standings.
The schedule gets a lot more difficult in the final four weeks of the season.
“Everyone we’ve got left has either one loss or two (in the conference),” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “Everyone is chasing that team with no losses. Each game is critical and it’s got to be one game at a time.”
EKU and No. 24 Tennessee State (7-2, 4-1 OVC) are set to meet today at Roy Kidd Stadium in a very crucial game for both teams.
The winner will stay in the hunt for a title, while the loser will be all but eliminated from championship contention.
Game time is set for 1 p.m.
“It’s a must-win game,” Hood said. “Doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It’s the same as its been the past three weeks.”
No. 2 Eastern Illinois (7-1, 4-0 OVC) remains on top of the OVC standings after defeating Tennessee State last week, 34-16, in Nashville
Three teams have just one OVC loss — EKU, Tennessee State and Murray State (5-3, 3-1 OVC) — but Eastern Illinois already has wins over both EKU and TSU.
So, the loser of today’s showdown at Roy Kidd Stadium will have to shift its focus from a championship to trying to get an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
“We know we have a pretty good conference,” EKU senior linebacker Tyler Horn said. “EIU, Tennessee State, Tennessee-Martin and a lot of these teams have had good seasons. So, finishing up strong here is hopefully going to get us in position to get into the playoffs.”
The Colonels have kept themselves in playoff contention with a trio of lopsided wins.
After rolling past Austin Peay (38-3) and Tennessee Tech (24-10) at home, EKU picked up a 31-7 win last week at Southeast Missouri State.
The Colonels’ defense has led the way during the winning streak. EKU has allowed only two touchdowns in the past 13 quarters of action. They also gave up just 628 total yards, including only 203 yards rushing, in those three victories.
“I like how we are playing right now,” Horn said. “On defense, we’ve starting playing much more consistently. We are not making the mental errors we did earlier in the season. We are tackling well.”
Tennessee State has had more success against the Colonels than any other OVC team in recent years.
The Tigers have won three of the past four meetings with EKU, including a 23-20 win last season in Nashville.
“They’ve had the better end of the deal,” Hood said. “There have been lots of close games with these guys and they’ve come out on top more times than we have since I have been here.”
Last year’s loss was particularly painful for EKU.
The Colonels had a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but TSU scored on its final two drives, getting the game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left.
That loss probably cost the Colonels a playoff bid.
“We missed a 24-yard field goal and fumbled the ball down on their end on a punt return,” Hood said. “That’s 10 points and they score at the end of the game to win by three. It was a frustrating loss.”
This year’s game will feature two of the best defenses in the OVC.
EKU and TSU rank near top of every defensive statistical category, including scoring defense (TSU - 1st, 15.8; EKU - 3rd, 23.4), rushing defense (EKU - 1st, 103.0; TSU - 2nd, 112.8) and total defense (TSU - 1st, 296.2; EKU - 2nd, 354.2).
Tennessee State also leads the league in turnover margin (+13), opponent’s third-down percentage (27.6), sacks (26) and pass defense (183.4).
“If we do what we do, which is possess the ball, even though they are a really good defense, we should be able to hold our own,” EKU senior tight end Ike Ariguzo said.
Tennessee State has won two of the past three meetings with EKU, including a victory at Roy Kidd Stadium in 2009.
Both those wins have been by just three points.
“They’ve always got a good team,” Horn said. “We’ve always got a good team. It always seems to come down to the last play. We are working on finishing this year.”