By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
The Colonels entered the season as the favorites to win another Ohio Valley Conference championship.
And so far they’ve lived up to the preseason hype.
Back-to-back wins over two of the better teams in the league — Jacksonville State and UT-Martin — have allowed the 17th-ranked Colonels (4-1, 2-0 OVC) to emerge as the clear front-runners for a title.
“We are the team to beat, but we’ve just got to block that out and go out there and play ball,” EKU senior defensive lineman Robert Knowles said.
The Colonels definitely appear comfortable in that role.
They’ve developed a confident, but not necessarily cocky, swagger as they have picked up four straight wins and slowly moved up the national polls in the past month.
“Every team is going to give us their best shot,” EKU senior wide receiver Tyrone Goard said. “This is a big-time conference and teams are going to do whatever they have to do to beat us. It’s kind of exciting. This is big-time football. It’s a big challenge for us.”
The next big challenge awaits.
The Colonels are set to travel to Nashville Saturday to take on undefeated Tennessee State (5-0, 1-0 OVC). Game time is set for 2 p.m. at W.J. Hale Stadium on the TSU campus.
“It’s a big game,” TSU coach Ron Reed said. “Make no mistake about it.”
After just two full weeks of conference play, only three teams remain undefeated against OVC competition — EKU, TSU and Eastern Illinois.
Tennessee State was picked to finish fifth in the league’s preseason poll, but has been the biggest surprise in the OVC so far this season. The Tigers are one of only 11 undefeated Football Championship Subdivision teams left in the nation.
TSU is also one of just two FCS teams (Lehigh) to post five wins so far this season against Division I scholarship programs.
Despite that impressive resume, TSU was not ranked until this week. The Tigers are currently 24th in the FCS Coaches Poll and are just outside the Top 25 in The Sports Network Poll.
“We don’t really worry about the respect factor,” Reed said. “We worry about going out and playing our brand of football and being able to play at a high level. If you win the game, you will earn respect.”
The Tigers have certainly earned the respect of the Colonels in recent years.
TSU is the only team in the OVC to have a winning record against EKU since Dean Hood took over the program four years ago. The Tigers defeated the Colonels in both 2008 and 2009 before EKU picked up a 33-22 win last year at Roy Kidd Stadium.
“They are a good football team,” Hood said. “I don’t care who you’ve played. Its hard to be 5-0 in college football. They beat Austin Peay and beat them soundly. They beat Bethune-Cookman. They’ve got tons of weapons.”
A solid defense has been the main reason for TSU’s early-season success.
The Tigers are fourth in the nation (FCS) in scoring defense (13.4 points a game) and have not allowed more than 14 points in any game this season. TSU also leads the OVC in pass efficiency defense, total defense (317.20 yards a game) and sacks (2.4).
The Tigers defeated Austin Peay, 34-14, on Sept. 15, but their other wins have come against SWAC opponents (Jackson State and Arkansas Pine-Bluff) and MEAC opponents (Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman).
“Overall, we’ve played pretty good football, but we haven’t faced the kind of opponent we will face this weekend,” Reed said. “This is great EKU team. They have a really physical brand of game.”
The Colonels appeared to be in trouble last week on the road against UT-Martin.
They trailed 16-7 late in the third quarter, but Goard caught four touchdown passes (three in the second half) to lead a comeback that resulted in a 28-16 win.
Goard finished with seven catches for 175 yards.
“I came up with some big plays,” Goard said. “Coach just kept giving me chances and expected me to do what I had to do. I did my best.”
On Goard’s third TD catch, senior quarterback T.J. Pryor became the school’s all-time passing leader (6,085). The Louisville native needs 18 completions and two more TD passes to become the school’s all-time leader in those categories as well.
UT-Martin was able to slow down the Colonels’ running attack, but EKU posted a season-high 282 yards passing.
The Colonels also did not commit a turnover for the second-straight game. In the past four games, EKU has turned the ball over just once.
“We talk about that all the time,” Hood said of turnovers. “We’ve got to create turnovers on defense and limit our turnovers. That’s a really good formula for us and its got to stay the same this week.”
EKU and TSU have developed a healthy and at times heated rivalry in recent years and most of the games have been very competitive and hard-fought.
The average margin of victory in the past three games is just nine points.
“I really don’t see anything to be concerned about, but if we don’t go out there and execute, they could hurt us,” Knowles said. “It’s that way with any team.”