By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
Since a loss to defending champion Eastern Illinois in the Ohio Valley Conference opener last month, the Colonels have been in must-win mode.
They’ve known since then that another loss would likely knock them out of contention for a league championship and perhaps an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
“I think our kids are settling into a backs against the wall (mentality) and that’s life, so lets get comfortable with it and lets expect that challenge,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “You are not going to win this league with two losses. So, it is what it is.”
So far, they’ve answered the call.
EKU (4-3, 2-1 OVC) has rolled to two-straight lopsided conference wins at home against teams at the bottom of the conference standings — Austin Peay (38-3) and Tennessee Tech (24-10).
The Colonels will hope to carry that momentum out on the road today when they take on Southeast Missouri State (1-6, 1-3 OVC).
Game time is set for 2 p.m. in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“We’ve got five one-game seasons (left),” EKU quarterback Jared McClain said. “This is the next one. This is the biggest game of our careers.”
The defense was the driving force behind the wins over Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech.
In those victories, the Colonels allowed just one touchdown and only 33 yards rushing on 47 carries.
In the past nine quarters, EKU has allowed only 13 points (one touchdown, two field goals).
The Colonels limited Tech to 200 total yards and only 27 yards rushing on 22 carries (1.2 yards a carry).
“You stand on the sidelines and you would swear to God there were 12 guys out there sometimes,” Hood said of the EKU defense. “They were flying around.”
The Colonels lead the OVC and rank fifth nationally among FCS schools in rushing defense (93.4 yards a game).
SEMO ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every major offensive statistics. The Redhawks are eighth in scoring offense (18.9 points a game), seventh in total offense (307.1 yards a game), seventh in rushing offense (155.6 and eighth in pass offense (151.6).
However, the Redhawks are coming off their best two offensive performances of the season.
They defeated Murray State, 37-34, two weeks ago and fell on the road to No. 3 Eastern Illinois, 55-33, last week.
“Any team you go against a conference opponent, blood is in the water,” EKU senior linebacker Ichiro Vance said. “Our defense will be ready we are going to come it with all the intensity we can.”
The Colonels have won eight of the past nine meetings with the Redhawks and own a dominating 20-3 lead in the all-time series.
Still, the trip to SEMO has been difficult for EKU in recent years.
The Colonels lost in Cape Girardeau in 2010 (40-21) and picked up hard-fought wins there in 2008 (29-16) and 2006 (27-21).
Last year, EKU scored two third-quarter touchdowns to blow open a close game and went on to pick up a 31-7 win on the road over the Redhawks.
“We’ve had trouble with them in the past,” Hood said of SEMO. “They do a great job. They play great at home. They look like a totally different team when you watch film of them at home and on the road. It will be a battle.”
With more than a month left on the schedule, there are just two undefeated teams left in the OVC — Eastern Illinois (6-1, 3-0) and Tennessee State (7-1, 4-0) — and two teams with just one loss — EKU and Murray State (5-3, 3-1).
Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State are set to meet today in Nashville.
The result of that game could have a huge impact on the ultimate outcome of the race for an OVC title.
But, the Colonels know that unless they keep winning, they won’t be a factor, regardless of what happens in other games the rest of the way.
“We control what we can control,” EKU senior linebacker Ichiro Vance said. “Everything else, we leave it up to (them).”