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Eastern Illinois jumps on top of OVC title race
Fresh off first league loss, Eastern Kentucky hosts Southeast on Saturday.
So much for Eastern Kentucky rolling to the Ohio Valley Conference title.
After the Colonels won at two-time defending champion Jacksonville State on Oct. 1, many OVC observers assumed Eastern Kentucky would waltz to the crown.
But that was before the Colonels ran into Eastern Illinois on Saturday.
The host Panthers took advantage of two defensive touchdowns to build a 21-0 lead just five minutes into the game and they went on to crush the Colonels 53-22. Eastern Illinois thus avenged 41-0 and 49-6 losses to Eastern Kentucky the last two years.
"We were very fortunate early in this game. Our defense got us two touchdowns. We had great field position almost the entire day," Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo said during Tuesday's OVC coaches teleconference. "It was a very big game. Our kids played with a lot of emotion and that often is a deciding factor."
As for the previous two meetings against the Colonels, Spoo said, "I think we've had enough kids on our team ... we tried to focus on our intensity. We didn't compete against Eastern Kentucky those two previous years."
Now Eastern Kentucky (3-4, 3-1 OVC) finds itself looking up to Eastern Illinois (4-2, 3-0) in the conference standings, although there is still more than half of the league schedule remaining for most teams.
"If we win out ... everybody in the upper half of the conference has a chance to win outright or to tie for it," Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope said.
Eastern Illinois is the only OVC team without a conference loss, but as far as the Panthers having a clear path to the title, Spoo said, "There's too many games left to start talking about that."
Once the Panthers built their big early lead over Eastern Kentucky, they let their powerful ground game do the rest.
Eastern Illinois rushed for 281 yards. The Panthers threw for just 32 yards -- quarterback Mike Donato attempted only 10 passes -- but they had no turnovers.
"We were able to run the ball and that was a benefit to us," Spoo said.
Eastern Kentucky had five turnovers, which more than offset the 398 yards passing by Josh Greco, who threw for three touchdowns but was intercepted three times. Greco attempted an OVC-record 71 passes, completing 39.
"You can't win a football game against anybody, particularly a great football team like Eastern Illinois, when you turn it over five times," said Hope, whose squad held a 452-313 advantage in total yardage. "We got behind by a bunch early, got put in a position where we felt like we had to throw the ball to catch up."
Besides Eastern Illinois, the biggest beneficiary of the Panthers' win was Jacksonville State, which handed visiting Tennessee-Martin its first conference defeat 37-17.
After the Gamecocks (3-4, 3-1) lost to Eastern Kentucky, they knew they had to win the rest of their games and hope somebody knocked off the Colonels.
Jacksonville State got its wish, and now the Gamecocks once again control their own destiny as far as gaining at least a share of their third straight OVC title. If they win out -- including beating Eastern Illinois in the regular-season finale -- they can do no worse than tie for the crown.
"This is like 2003. We lost early, and had to have life," Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said.
Like Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State capitalized on a barrage of turnovers by Tennessee-Martin (4-2, 2-1), which had been off to its best start in a decade.
The Skyhawks entered the contest leading all of Division I-AA in turnover margin, but they had six first-half turnovers, as the Gamecocks forged a 21-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. The score was 24-0 at halftime.
"We got off to a good start and we had breaks early," Crowe said.
The Skyhawks, who held a slim 361-353 edge in total yardage, pulled within 24-14 midway through the third quarter before their rally fizzled.
The other two winners in OVC play had substantially less yardage than their opponents, making for something of an oddity in that all four contests featured the losers outgaining the winners.
Samford (3-4, 2-2) used a defensive touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown to beat visiting Murray State (1-5, 0-3) 27-23.
The Racers, who won the yardage battle 464-243, are off to their first 0-3 OVC start since 1990.
Tennessee State (2-4, 1-1) also had a defensive touchdown and a blocked punt return for a TD to post a 31-20 victory at Tennessee Tech (2-5, 1-3).
The Eagles, who outgained the Tigers 448-311, had seven turnovers to just two for Tennessee State.
Players of the week
Tennessee State redshirt freshman running back Javarris Williams is the OVC offensive player of the week after rushing for 190 yards on 31 carries against Tennessee Tech.
Eastern Illinois junior linebacker Lucius Seymour earned the defensive award. He had 11 tackles, a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception against Eastern Kentucky.
Also honored were Samford senior free safety/kick returner Cortland Finnegan (special teams) and Tennessee State true freshman defensive end Courtney Richardson (newcomer).
Finnegan returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to give Samford the lead for good against Murray State. Finnegan also had 13 tackles.
Richardson had five tackles, including two sacks, against Tennessee Tech. He also forced a fumble, returning it 30 yards for a touchdown.