By Clay Ward
Clinching a playoff spot is no longer a concern after Eastern’s (8-2, 7-0 OVC) win over Austin Peay (6-4, 4-3), winning at minimum a share of the OVC title. Eastern may play at home in the first round of playoffs if the Colonels can overcome Tennessee Tech (4-6, 2-5) at home to go undefeated in the OVC.
This would be the first time since 1997 that a Colonel football team went undefeated in the OVC. That team was coached by Roy Kidd and ended the season’s 8-4 overall record after starting the season 0-3. Eastern won all eight OVC games only to lose to Western for the second time that year.
Eastern is ranked 12th nationally according to The Sports Network. Of the 11 teams ranked ahead of Eastern, four in the FCS are still undefeated.
The Northern Iowa Panthers and the North Dakota State Bisons, both FCS teams, have beaten a combined three FBS teams: Minnesota, Central Michigan and Iowa State.
Tennessee Tech doesn’t have a lot riding on this game, but will have a chance to end the season on a positive note after losing its last five games.
Last year, Eastern fell to Tennessee Tech 14-27.
“Last year we didn’t finish in the second half, but that was last year. This is a whole different team,” said junior quarterback Alan Holland.
Sophomore quarterback Lee Sweeney leads the Golden Eagles, throwing for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns. The low numbers at this point in the year are due to knee injury suffered mid-season. The sophomore has improved dramatically after being thrown in the fire as a true freshman.
Last year, he compled only 53.3 percent on his passes, but increased this year to 63.3. Even with the increase in completed passes, Sweeney still almost matched his touchdowns (9) to interceptions (8).
A statistic that the Colonel defense must be excited about is their first-place ranking among all FCS teams in turnover margin at +21.
Eastern junior defensive back and last weeks OVC co-defensive player of the week Brandon Gathof is one of the team’s leaders. Gathof totaled two interceptions and six tackles against Austin Peay, but to Gathof the award is just icing on the cake.
“The most important thing is to get the win. It’s good to get, but it would be better if we could get defense of the week,” said Gathof.
Another leader is senior defensive back Derrick Huff. Huff leads all Division I football in interceptions with nine and won national defensive player of the week two weeks ago.
Players and coaches aren’t taking this game lightly.
“We don’t want the prefix ‘co’ in front of our championship,” Gathof said.
With two senior running backs, Mark Dunn and Bobby Washington, Eastern’s ground game was under high expectations during preseason and performed. Washington turned in his sixth 100-yard game last week.
Holland has become a source for the passing game. The preseason had all eyes on senior Josh Greco, but the reins were handed to Holland, who drove 1,768 total yards and 12 touchdowns. Both juniors Holland and Gathof are trying to send their upperclassmen off with an outright championship.
“We have 21 seniors on this team. we would like to send these seniors on a good note and Saturday we have that opportunity,” said Gathof.
Coach Hope said he talked to the players after last week’s game, giving insight to his perspective on championships.
“One thing about being part of a championship is it feeds your soul for the rest of your life in a lot of ways,” Coach Hope said. “Being goal-oriented, committed to a purpose, realizing that I worked my hardest to do my best there is a goal for me. I think it helps self-realize in a lot of ways.