After a thrilling victory on the road over a long-time rival, the EKU coaching staff was a bit worried that the team might to be set up for a letdown.
And with good reason.
The Colonels (4-3, 2-1 OVC) hit the road again this weekend to take on the only winless team in the Ohio Valley Conference — Eastern Illinois (0-8, 0-4).
Those fears faded away rather quickly, though.
On Sunday night, the coaches met with the team leaders and were pleasantly surprised by the focus of the players.
“I don’t usually talk about the next opponent, but our players had seen their record,” EKU coach Mark Elder said. “So, I told them, ‘Guys, you’ve got to be with me on this. Eastern Illinois is a really good team.’ And three of them immediately said, ‘Yes. We’ve seen the scores. We know. That’s a good football team.’ I’m glad to see that our players were looking beyond just the record.”
With just five games left in the regular season, the Colonels are in a three-way tie for second place with Austin Peay (4-3, 2-1) and SEMO (4-3, 2-1).
Every game could have a huge impact on EKU’s chances of making the FCS Playoffs for the first time in five years.
Game time between the Colonels and Panthers is set for 3 p.m. today in Charleston, Ill.
“The record is nothing but a number,” EKU sophomore defensive back Dualson Fitzpatrick said. “Growing up, my dad always taught me to respect everybody, but fear no one. They are college football players too. We can’t expect they are going to go out there and lay down.”
That 0-8 record certainly is a bit misleading.
The Panthers have been in every game they played this season, with the exception of a 52-0 loss at Indiana.
Their four OVC losses are by a combined total of just 35 points.
Last week, Eastern Illinois jumped on top early against first-place UT-Martin (5-2, 4-0). The Skyhawks were able to battle back for a 27-18 win at home behind three interceptions.
The Panthers had close losses at home to Tennessee Tech (40-29) and Jacksonville State (28-20) and also fell at Murray State (24-17).
“In 20 years of coaching, this is the best 0-8 team I’ve ever seen,” Elder said. “If you put the film on and watch how they play and you would think they are 7-1 and in the hunt of the battle for the conference championship. They play their tails off. They are physical from play one to the end of the game. They are in every game.”
Eastern Illinois is last in the OVC in scoring offense (12.9 points a game), total offense (282 yards a game), third-down percentage (28.6) and rushing offense (92.2 yards a game). The Panthers, though, have actually out-gained their opponents four times this season and have one of the top offensive threats in the league.
Sophomore receiver Isaiah Hill has 32 catches on the season — the third-most in the OVC.
The Colonels ran out to a huge lead last week, before Murray State came roaring back.
The Racers (4-4, 2-2) scored the final 17 points of the game and had the ball on the EKU goal line in the final seconds.
An interception in the end zone by Frank Sumpter sealed a much-needed win for the Colonels.
“It was huge to get a win and continue to do well in conference play,” EKU running back Alonzo Booth said.
Booth had two rushing touchdowns as the Colonels built a 34-10 lead.
An interception return for a touchdown helped jump-start the Murray State comeback.
“Our guys didn’t panic,” Elder said. “We didn’t let the momentum affect how we played and our confidence. We made enough plays down the stretch to pull out the victory.”
The Colonels had eight penalties for 114 yards and allowed the Racers to rack up 403 yards passing.
But, interceptions in the second half by Fitzpatrick and a pair of veteran leaders — Aaron Patrick and Sumpter — sealed the win.
“You saw a bunch of seniors playing their best football,” Elder said.
The Colonels have lost three-straight games to the Panthers in Charleston, Ill.
The Panthers beat EKU in overtime, 23-20, two years ago. They also beat the Colonels in 2015 (21-7) and 2013 (42-7).
In the next two weeks, EKU is set to face the other two teams who are currently tied for second place in the league — SEMO and Austin Peay.
The Colonels know they can’t look ahead, though.
“Let’s go win this game,” Elder said. “Put all our efforts into this game. That’s all we can do. We will worry about the big picture in five weeks.”