By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
It’s been six seasons since any team has gone through the Ohio Valley Conference schedule without a loss (2007 - EKU).
So it’s not likely that the Colonels’ disheartening loss last week in the league opener at Eastern Illinois has already ended their quest for a record 22nd OVC title.
After all, there are still two months worth of games still to be played.
That setback, however, has put the Colonels in a rather uncomfortable situation.
“We’ve got seven games left and we are going to treat them like the most important games we have left,” EKU offensive lineman Justin Meredith said. “You win out and you’re 9-3 and you have a chance to get into the brackets and make a run for it.”
The first step toward bouncing back from the loss to EIU and having a chance to win out comes today at Roy Kidd Stadium.
The Colonels (2-3) are set to take on winless Austin Peay (0-4). Game time is set for 6 p.m.
“There’s a lot of parody in the league,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “(Eastern Illinois) is a good team, no question. We helped them, no question. But, it is what it is. We need to win this game. It’s a must-win.”
The loss last week at No. 5 Eastern Illinois was disappointing on so many levels.
The Colonels turned the ball over four times in the first half and went into halftime down 35-0. The defending OVC champions eventually went on to pick up a 42-7 victory.
EKU managed just 266 yards of total offense and didn’t score until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, long after EIU had taken most of its starters out of the game.
“You’ve got no time (to dwell on that loss),” Hood said. “That’s the nature of the business. It doesn’t matter if you win big or lose big, or lose by a little or win by a little, Sunday comes and its the same deal. You’ve got to find out what mistakes you made and get them corrected and move on to the next day and the next team.”
Turnovers played a big part in that loss, no doubt.
In just five games this season, the Colonels have already matched their turnover total from all of last year — nine. EKU was a +19 in turnover margin last season, but is -1 so far this year.
“Right now, we are just beating ourselves with a lot of things,” EKU defensive lineman Shawn Shupperd said. “Turnovers and that type of stuff. Not wrapping up when we tackle. We’ve got to focus on what we do.”
Those turnovers came at very inopportune times, as well.
Quarterback Jared McClain was intercepted deep in EIU territory of EKU’s first drive. Redshirt freshman J.J. Jude fumbled after a 31-yard gain later in the first half.
The biggest blow though came just before halftime when McClain tried to battle through a series of defenders after being flushed from the pocket. He fumbled and the ball was returned 70 yards for a touchdown.
“We were just not happy with Jared’s ball security,” Hood said. “He’s been told over and over and over again that he doesn’t have an ‘S’ on his chest and that when something is not there, throw the ball away. If there are a whole bunch of guys around you, get on the ground and lets punt the ball away. He’s been told that since the beginning of the season and until Saturday it hadn’t really hurt us.”
Because of that play, McClain was benched in the second half. Kyle Romano was under center in the third quarter and stayed in the game until he suffered a high ankle sprain.
Romano will not play against Peay, so the Colonels have been giving senior wide receiver Ben De La Cruz, a former quarterback who has been converted to receiver, has been taking snaps with the top offensive unit in practice.
The Colonels have two freshman QBs on the roster - Barton Mann and Zain Gilmore, but the coaching staff still hopes to redshirt both of them this season.
“Jared has to be the Jared we know he can be,” Hood said.
Jude was also benched after his fumble.
After rushing 33 times for 195 yards and four touchdowns the week before against Morehead State, he had just nine carries against EIU for 69 yards.
So far this season, the Colonels have 14 fumbles, most of which have came from Jude (five) and McClain (5).
“Is he making redshirt freshman mistakes? Yeah,” Hood said of Jude. “Can he continue to do that and us (be successful)? No, he can’t and neither can a whole lot of other guys on our team right now.”
The Governors head into their OVC opener off a much-needed open week. In the first month of the season, Austin Peay faced three Football Bowl Subdivision teams — Tennessee, Ohio and Vanderbilt — and one Top 25 FCS team — Chattanooga.
In those games, the Govs were out-scored 163-13 and suffered two shutout losses.
Prior to the start of the season, Peay had gone 84 straight games without being shutout.
EKU has dominated the all-time series with the Governors, winning 40 of 45 the games between the long-time rivals.
The Colonels have won 13 straight against Peay at Roy Kidd Stadium, with the last loss coming in 1977.
“On the scoreboard, they haven’t played very well,” Hood said. “But, their top two running backs are 4.9 yards a carry and 5.4 yards a carry. That’s successful, especially when you play Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ohio.”
Tim Phillips has 252 yards on 51 carries and has scored the Govs’ only touchdown of the season. Omar Williams has 103 yards on 18 carries.
Peay has only turned the ball over four times on the season (one fumble, three interceptions) and have a +2 turnover margin.
“They’ve got a good offensive line,” Shupperd said. “They’ve got a great running back, who is great and cutting back and making plays. They ran the ball well against all those teams. We’ve got to stop the run.”