By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
The Colonels didn’t panic.
They regrouped, refocused and tried to make sure that one disappointing loss didn’t bring an end to their championship aspirations.
And two weeks — and two wins — later, they find themselves right back at the top of the Ohio Valley Conference standings.
“I think we are back on a roll again,” EKU junior defensive lineman Shawn Shupperd said. “We’ve just got to keep it going.”
With four weeks left in the regular season, most of the league is still in the hunt for the OVC title. Four teams have just one conference loss — EKU (6-2, 4-1 OVC), UT-Martin (6-2, 4-1), Eastern Illinois (4-3, 3-1) and Tennessee State (7-1, 3-1).
Two other teams have only two OVC losses — Jacksonville State (4-3, 3-2) and Murray State (3-4, 2-2).
Two of those championship contenders are set to meet Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium when the Colonels play host to
Game time is set for noon and the game will broadcast nationally on Fox College Sports.
“All you can do is take care of your business and do the best job you can, then see what happens,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “In this conference, win or lose, the next week you’ve got to play and every game is critical. Everybody but a couple of teams are still in it.”
The Colonels were the preseason pick to win the OVC, but Eastern Illinois has been perhaps the biggest surprise so far this season in the league.
After being picked eighth in the preseason poll, first-year coach Dino Babers, a former Baylor assistant coach, has re-energized a struggling program with a high-octane passing attack.
Led by the duo of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora, the Panthers are among the national leaders in most passing statistics.
“They are really good at what they do,” Shupperd said. “You can’t replicate it in practice. You can do the best you can, but these guys get up to the line quick and they’ve got great players. We are definitely going to have to be on it.”
The Panthers will certainly present a very unique challenge to a Colonel defense that has not allowed more than 28 points this season to an OVC opponent.
Behind Garoppolo and Lora, Eastern Illinois leads the OVC in scoring offense (43.4 points a game, second in FCS), touchdowns scored (41) and total offense (515.9 yards a game, second in FCS).
The Panthers are also second in the OVC and fifth nationally (FCS) in passing offense (378.1 yards a game).
Garoppolo and Lora have been nothing less than spectacular this season.
Lora, a junior, leads the nation in receptions and receiving yards (1,129 yards). He has 83 catches this season, which is already the fifth-best single-season total in OVC history.
Lora has seven-straight games with 100-plus yards receiving. Earlier this season, the junior caught an OVC single-game record 21 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns in an overtime win against Murray State.
Garoppolo, also a junior, has thrown a least one touchdown in 22 straight games. In a win earlier this year over Austin Peay, he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns and against UT-Martin he finished with 428 yards and two touchdowns.
So far this season, Garoppolo has completed 203-of-339 pass attempts for 2,475 yards and 21 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. The junior currently ranks fourth nationally in passing yards a game (353.6), fifth nationally in total offense and sixth nationally in completion percentage (59.9).
Both Lora and Garoppolo are on the Walter Payton Award Watch list. The honor is given annually to the best FCS player in the nation.
EKU senior running back Matt Denham is also on the list for the prestigious award.
The Panthers are coming off a bye week, but picked up a hard-fought 31-28 win over Jacksonville State Oct. 13 at home.
In that win, Lora had 11 catches for 128 yards as the Gamecocks limited EIU to just 220 passing yards.
“We didn’t play our best, but we found a way to win, which I think builds a lot of character for a football team,” Babers said. “Now, hopefully we can go out and try to find a way to get our first road win.”
The Colonels had a character building-type win last week on the road.
After trailing 28-20 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, EKU scored the final 22 points of the game. Senior quarterback T.J. Pryor threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns after the defense came up with two interceptions deep in TTU territory.
“We always go out there with the mentality that we are going to win the game,” Shupperd said.
The Colonels have won five-straight against Eastern Illinois, but this will be their first look at the Panther’s new high-flying offense.
Still, they don’t plan on changing their approach.
EKU is allowing 258 yards a game through the air this season and leads the OVC in interceptions (12).
“We are going to do what we do,” Hood said. “The critical thing is to do it well and help ourselves defensively.”
The Colonels lead the OVC in time of possession (33:53), and keeping the ball out of the hands of Lora and Garoppolo might be the key to slowing down the Panthers.
“If we are on the field and we control the tempo with six or seven-minute drives, then their offense isn’t on the field and they can’t score points,” Pryor said. “So, as long as we do what we do, don’t turnover the ball over and control the tempo, then it won’t be one of those 60-50 games.”
The EKU coaching staff does not usually like to use zone defenses or double-team receivers under normal circumstances.
And Hood says is not likely they will shift that philosophy against Lora and the Panthers.
“I just think that when you get concerned about one guy, it weakens you somewhere else,” Hood said. “I just personally don’t like to do that. I’d prefer to put our best corner on his side as opposed to changing our coverage and putting two guys on one player.”
The Panthers have not won a road game this season, but a victory over the 21-time OVC champions Colonels would be a signature moment for a program trying to rebuild after several sub-par seasons.
Still, they know it won’t be easy.
“This is the best team (at this level that) we’ve faced all year and we are going to have our hands full,” Babers said.