By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
The Colonels limped out on the road knowing that one more slip up would certainly cost them any shot at an Ohio Valley Conference title and perhaps a trip to the FCS Playoffs.
Short-handed and still stinging from a loss last week at home, EKU didn’t just survive a trip to Southeast Missouri, the team put together one of its better overall performances of the season.
The Colonels (7-3, 5-2 OVC) slowed down the Redhawks’ potent ground attack and forced three turnovers as they rolled to a 31-7 win at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Sophomore quarterback Jared McClain ran for two touchdowns and safety Brooklyn Fox had an interception and a fumble recovery in a dominant victory.
“I didn’t know if we could come in here and get this thing done,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “I thought that was one of the gutsiest performances by a football team that I’ve ever been associated with.”
With the win, the Colonels stay a half game behind both UT-Martin (7-2, 5-1) and Eastern Illinois (6-3, 5-1) for first place heading into their regular-season finale next week at home against Murray State.
Despite a long list of injuries, including two starting tight ends, EKU was in control from the beginning, scoring on three of its first four possessions — two touchdowns and a field goal.
After scoring only seven points last week against Eastern Illinois, the Colonels drove into SEMO territory on nine of their 11 possessions. EKU had 20 first downs and finished with 364 total yards.
“I think we came out focused and ready to play, regardless of what else was going on as far as the playoffs and stuff,” EKU receiver Tyrone Goard said.
The defense was just as good.
SEMO came into the game averaging 252 yards a game on the ground, the best in the OVC. But, the Colonels limited the Redhawks to 206 yards, much of which came late in the game.
“I thought (defensive coordinator Tony) Hatmaker and his staff had a great gameplan,” Hood said. “The defense did a great job holding them down.”
The Colonels did not commit a turnover and improved their turnover margin on the season to +17. They have also out-scored OVC opponents 55-7 in points of turnovers.
“We just try to put the ball in the offense’s hands as much as possible,” Fox said. “We just try to get off the field.”
EKU has won the turnover battle in nine of 10 games this season.
“You’ve got to blessed to do that,” Hood said. “That’s not something (you can plan on). That’s one of the biggest stats in college football.”
Senior All-American Matt Denham scored on a 1-yard TD run with 9:37 left in the first quarter. Denham finished with 99 yards and went over 3,000 yards for his career, moving him into ninth place on the school’s all-time rushing list.
Zack Burgy-VanHoose hit a 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter and Deshaun Sands scored on a 20-yard run moments later to give EKU 17-0 lead.
Senior quarterback T.J. Pryor struggled for most of the game. He finished just 3-of-14 for 24 yards.
McClain came on the second half and scored on a pair of 3-yard touchdown runs in the third quarter. The sophomore completed eight-of-11 passes for 138 yards.
“Jared can come in at any time and be in rhythm with the offensive line,” Goard said. “It’s kind of exciting to have two good quarterbacks.”
SEMO scored on a 14-yard run by Blake Johnson with 4:03 left in the game. That score denied the Colonels their first shutout in seven years (2005 — Tennessee State).
EKU is set to wrap up the regular season Saturday at home against Murray State. Game time is set for 1 p.m. at Roy Kidd Stadium.