By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
As he led his team into the red zone at Roy Kidd Stadium for probably the final time in his record-breaking career, the crowd in the student section started to chant T.J. Pryor’s name.
“Some of those guys are in my classes and they told me they were going to do that for me,” said Pryor, EKU’s senior quarterback. “It was a great experience. My last home game. It just felt good.”
Moments later, Pryor gave those fans one final reason to cheer.
The senior scrambled to his left and dove headfirst just ahead of a Murray State defender into the left corner of the end zone.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to get in,” Pryor said. “I had to dive for it.”
That 4-yard touchdown run was the final highlight of a very memorable Senior Day for EKU. The Colonels racked up 666 yards of total offense, converted on 14-of-16 third-down opportunities and defeated Murray State 55-24 Saturday in Richmond.
Senior All-American running back Matt Denham tied a school record with four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) and Cameron Bailey had two touchdowns as the Colonels (8-2, 6-2 OVC) finished the game on a 35-0 run.
“We’ve got a great offense and (offensive coordinator Dane) Damron called an unbelievable game,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “I’m just really proud of kids. I just love this football team and I don’t want it to end.”
The win marked the end of the Colonels’ regular-season schedule.
It may also have marked the end of their season.
With a win earlier in the day, Eastern Illinois locked up the Ohio Valley Conference title and an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.
Three teams — EKU, UT-Martin and Tennessee State — still have a shot at getting an at-large bid to the postseason. UT-Martin and Tennessee State play next week.
The Colonels don’t play next week and all they can do now is just wait, watch and hope.
“We had a couple of bumps along the way, but our goal is to get in the playoffs and win a national championship,” Denham said. “If we don’t the OVC championship, that’s fine. We will play for a national championship.”
The NCAA selection committee picks 10 at-large teams to compete in the 20-team tournament. They will announce their selections next Sunday.
The Colonels certainly looked like they were trying to impress that committee with their performance against Murray State.
The Racers came into the annual in-state showdown with one of the best offenses in county, averaging 40.56 points and 498.11 yards a game. They had scored 49 or more points in six of their past seven games.
EKU’s defense allowed three first-half touchdowns, then settled down and shutout the high-scoring Racers for the final 40 minutes of the game.
“We just needed to get used to the tempo,” said EKU linebacker Kevin Hamlin, who had a second-half interception. “We came out kind of dead. The offense picked us up and then we got rolling.”
The EKU offense was almost unstoppable.
The Colonels scored touchdowns on each of their first five possessions and they punted only twice. EKU posted season-highs for total yards and rushing yards (387).
Denham scored on his team’s first four drives — 16-yard run, 2-yard run, 26-yard pass and 33-yard run — and finished with 214 yards on the ground.
The Colonels pushed their lead to 34-24 just before halftime when running back Deshaun Sands took a pitch and hit senior Tyrone Goard in the left corner of the end zone.
“All I had to do was throw it up,” Sands said. “(Tyrone) made it easy for me.”
Bailey scored twice in the third quarter, once on a 26-yard run and then on a 28-yard pass from sophomore Jared McClain that put EKU up 48-24.
Goard caught seven passes for 152 yards and Bailey had seven catches for 68 yards.
Pryor connected on 14-of-20 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 63 yards and a score.
The Louisville native is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns passes. After the game, the emotions started to set in as Pryor began to reflect back on his career.
“It’s coming down hard on me right now,” Pryor said.
Still, it may not be the end for the Colonels.
They will get back to practice and wait to see if they get a shot at the FCS Playoffs.
“We can’t worry about that,” Denham said. “We’ve just got focus on what we are doing. A week off is going to help us heal up.”