By Ryan Alves
Matt Denham is going broke.
Last Saturday in Eastern’s 34-33 win over host Murray State, Denham the Colonels’ running back rushed for more than 200 yards—219 to be exact—which meant that he owed his offensive line something special – dinner.
“Back before the season started, he [Denham] promised the o-line that he would take them out to eat every time he rushed for 200 yards,” Eastern Head Coach Dean Hood said in a teleconference. “I don’t think he quite thought it would be like this, though.”
Saturday marked the third game in the last four—all Eastern wins—that Denham eclipsed the 200-yard plateau and ultimately had to pay up on his end of the bargain.
And Hood speculates he’s not just taking them to McDonalds.
“I’m sure he’s going to a buffet,” Hood said. “Because if you order items off a menu for linemen, you’re just asking for trouble…You dangle a buffet ticket in front of an offensive lineman, and that’s a heck of a motivation.”
Whatever the motivation is, it’s working.
The Colonels (5-3, 4-1 OVC) have rolled off four straight victories, catapulting them into a three-way tie for first place in the Ohio Valley Conference with No. 18 Jacksonville State and No. 15 Tennessee Tech.
In the last four wins, Eastern as a team has averaged 297.8 yards on the ground and caused 13 turnovers.
Against the Racers, the game plan didn’t change for the Colonels.
After senior defensive back Jeremy Caldwell took the opening kick-off back 64 yards into Murray State territory, Denham ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run the very next play, giving Eastern a 7-0 lead just 20 seconds into the game.
The Racers added two field goals and a touchdown on their next three possessions, taking a 13-7 lead, but wide receiver Tyrone Goard capped off a 54-yard scoring drive with a four-yard pass and catch from T.J. Pryor to send the Colonels into halftime with a 14-13 lead.
Eastern jumped right off the gates in the third quarter as Denham broke off a 46-yard run for his second touchdown of the game, and Pryor and Goard hooked up again, this time from 10 yards out to give the Colonels a 28-13 lead.
Murray State quarterback Casey Brockman found Nevar Griffin on an eight-yard touchdown pass, but Pryor rushed in for another Eastern score at the beginning of the fourth to extend the lead 34-20.
“We knew fully well it was gonna be a barn burner,” Hood said. “It was no surprise to anybody that it was a game where we would have to make plays in the fourth quarter to win the ball game.”
And rightfully so, because Murray State wouldn’t go away as Brockman found Ja-von Trotter for two back-to-back touchdown passes late in the fourth. However, the Racer’s kicker Brandon Potts missed the extra-point attempt wide left, allowing Eastern to cling to the one-point lead, 34-33.
The Colonels’ offense tried to run out the clock, but had to punt the ball back to Murray with 2:22 remaining, giving Brockman plenty of time to move the ball to midfield.
But like they have all season, Eastern’s defense stepped up when it was needed the most, forcing an incompletion on fourth and six to secure the win.
“[We’re] Very fortunate, on the road against Murray,” Hood said. “Coach Hatcher had a great game plan and their kids played hard. [We’re] Very blessed to get out of there with a ‘W’.”
In the game against Murray, Pryor finished on 14-25 passing for 179 yards and one interception. The junior moved into third place on the all-time passing list at Eastern.
Eastern looks to take its momentum into battle with the No. 18 ranked team in the country, Jacksonville State.
And with it being an away game for the Colonels, Hood and his staff know the task at hand won’t be easy.
“We have a big game this weekend at Jacksonville, which is probably the toughest place to play in the conference,” Hood said.
The Gamecocks are coming off their first OVC loss of the season, a 21-14 nail-biter against Tennessee Tech.
The loss was the second in a row for the Gamecocks, the first time since the beginning of the 2009 season that the team has lost two games in a row.
JSU was limited to 40 yards below its season rushing average. But despite being limited offensively, the game was tied entering the fourth quarter before TTU scored with 13:06 to play in the game. On their final possession of the game, the Gamecocks fumbled deep in TTU territory, giving the Golden Eagles the ball back and a chance to run out the clock.
JSU’s two-headed rushing attack of Calvin Middleton and Washaun Ealey, who transferred from the University of Georgia this season, rushed for a combined 137 yards in the loss, while Coty Blanchard completed 17 of 22 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown pass. He also rushed for 31 yards and a score.
In last year’s game, Eastern came out on top 49-37 in Richmond, upsetting the Gamecocks and handing them their first loss of the season and preventing them from becoming the No. 1 team in the country (as No. 1 Appalachian State had lost earlier in the day).
“They do a great job in all three phases,” Hood said of JSU. “I just think they are sound. There is no weakness with them. Usually you can find something to put your hat on, but it’s tough to do with Jacksonville State because they are so sound across the board.”
The game against JSU will be a pivotal one in the Colonels race for the program’s 21st OVC championship. After the matchup with the Gamecocks on Saturday, Eastern faces fellow first-place Tennessee Tech and second-place UT Martin, both at home, to close out the season.
“You’ve got to win ballgames, and it doesn’t matter really who you are,” Hood
said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing; it’s a four-team race right now. And those four teams have to win the remaining ballgames. One loss can knock you out of it.”