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A Look Ahead: Eastern Kentucky

Saturday’s noon kickoff from Bowers Stadium will most certainly be the biggest matchup to this point in the season and an unexpected one to say the least. At the beginning of the fall 2021 season, Sam Houston fans likely had three games circled on the schedule: Central Arkansas, Stephen F. Austin, and Jacksonville State. Probably no one had Eastern Kentucky earmarked as a showdown for the AQ7 auto-bid and certainly didn’t have this as a must-win game for either squad.

Yet, here we are on the second Saturday of November previewing two teams with playoff aspirations. Granted, both squads have different playoff aspirations. For Sam Houston, two more wins in the regular season likely mean the #1 seed in the FCS playoffs while for Eastern Kentucky, a victory over the unbeaten Bearkats would likely push them into the playoff bracket.

With so much at stake this week, we’ll take an in-depth look at the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.

Revival of a Rich History

Eastern Kentucky is a storied football program with deep FCS roots and two FCS National Championships--1979 and 1982 under legendary head coach Roy Kidd. Kidd, who was EKU’s coach from 1965 until 2002, amassed a 315-123-8 record with 2 national titles, 16 Ohio Valley Conference Championships, 21 FCS playoff appearances, and 4 bowl games.

Sam houston football
Roy Kidd, EKU’s coach from 1965 until 2002, amassed a 315-123-8 record with 2 national titles, 16 Ohio Valley Conference Championships, 21 FCS playoff appearances, and 4 bowl games. Photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky athletics

Since the Kidd era, however, the Colonels only have 4 FCS playoff appearances and have lost in the first round in each of those postseasons. This rendition of the EKU Colonels, helmed by Walt Wells, is looking to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2014. EKU has the second-most FCS playoff appearances all-time trailing only Montana’s 24.

Scouting the Colonels

EKU enters this contest after a devastating road loss to Sam Houston’s arch-rival Stephen F. Austin a week ago 31-17 in a game where SFA averaged 7.8 offensive yards per play and 12.9 yards per pass attempt while giving up 453 total yards to the Lumberjacks.

The Colonels had climbed into the bottom of the FCS Top 25 and off of the FCS playoff bubble, but last Saturday’s loss leaves EKU at 6-3 overall, 3-1 in the WAC-ASUN, and needing not only to upset the unanimous #1 team in the nation on the road but likely needing to win out to make the playoffs. EKU will host Jacksonville State next week to close out the regular season.

What stands out the most about this EKU team is that they tend to be a ball-control team averaging 354.6 yards of offense per game and 5.5 yards per play. Eastern Kentucky is a team designed around controlling the clock, keeping the ball away from opponents, running an efficient offense, and capitalizing on opponent mistakes.

EKU has one of the best red-zone offenses in the nation ranking 4th with a 92.6% conversion rate while allowing only 1 sack per game. Defensively, the Colonels are 2nd nationally in defensive touchdowns with 4, 10th in passes intercepted with 12, and have one of the best pass defenders in the nation in Davion Ross who is 4th in the nation in passes defended per game at 1.7 and 30th in passes intercepted per game at 0.3. If Jequez Ezzard is healthy for Sam Houston, look for #5 Davion Ross to line up against Ezzard or Cody Chrest.

Players to Watch

I’ve already mentioned Davion Ross as a defensive player to watch for EKU, but look for linebackers Matthew Jackson and Kyle Bailey to lead the Colonels run-stopping efforts against a Bearkat team that rushed for 403 yards a week ago against Dixie State. Jackson, who was named to the Stats Perform FCS All-America Team as a 3rd team linebacker and ASUN Preseason All-Conference team, leads the team in tackles with 81 (43 unassisted). Opposite Jackson is Kyle Bailey who is the team’s second-leading tackler with 79 (47 unassisted) and ranks 17th in the nation with 5.2 solo tackles per game.

Offensively, the Colonels are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Parker McKinney who has started every game for EKU this season. McKinney is 172-282-8 for 1,801 yards (6.4 YPA) and 12 touchdowns with a season passer rating of 123.0. EKU’s signal-caller is fresh off of a game against Stephen F. Austin where he went 30-50-2 for 273 yards (5.5 YPA) and 1 touchdown while also rushing for 100 yards on 11 carries. Expect for McKinney to hit medium-range passes down the field and take advantage of the Sam Houston secondary in the intermediate yardages.

sam houston football
Offensively, the Colonels are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Parker McKinney who has started every game for EKU this season. Photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky athletics

On the ground, EKU is led primarily by back Da’Joun Hewitt (581 yards, 7 TDs) and quarterback McKinney (489 yards, 4 TDs) who combine to lead the Colonels with 1,070 yards and account for 81% of the team’s ground game. Hewitt averages 4.0 yards per carry while McKinney is more explosive going for 6.8 yards per carrying. If head coach Walt Wells is looking to keep McKinney as a dual-threat, he’ll have to contend with one of the stingiest run defenses in all of college football.

The Kats defensively have only allowed 593 yards rushing all season (2.4 YPC) and 4 rushing touchdowns. Sam Houston has only allowed two teams (Southeast Missouri and Jacksonville State) to rush for more than 100 yards and haven’t allowed a 100-yard individual rusher all season.

What to Expect

Eastern Kentucky, aside from Central Arkansas, will likely be the toughest test for Sam Houston this season. EKU brings a balanced, methodical offensive attack with a fairly stingy opportunistic defense into Bowers Stadium and will certainly be not only hungry but need this win to vault themselves off of the FCS playoff bubble. Of course, a Colonels win and a win next week against Jacksonville State would secure them the WAC-ASUN auto-bid into the playoffs.

For Sam Houston, the question shifts away from the defense for once this season and will focus, primarily, on the signal-caller Eric Schmid. Schmid, who has played up and down at times throughout the season, will need to be careful with the football through the air as mistakes will likely turn costly against an EKU team that not only is an efficient red zone squad but also will look to play keep-away from the Kats.

I expect this game to remain close throughout, but a weary EKU team who has made back-to-back trips to the Piney Woods in as many weeks very well may be tired coming into Saturday’s noon kickoff. Just as we saw with Dixie State a week ago, the road can be a fickle mistress for a traveling football team. Will the distractions of FBS surrounding the Sam Houston locker room be too much to handle with a week to let the move sink in or will the Kats come out focused and firing on all cylinders as they did against Dixie State?

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