RICHMOND — Let any who doubted Eastern Kentucky's nod as Ohio Valley Conference pre-season favorite hush.
The 21st-ranked Colonels hit on all cylinders Saturday, pummeling No. 24 Jacksonville State 51-21 at Roy Kidd Stadium.
Matt Denham rushed for 218 yards and two TDs, and also pulled in one of T.J. Pryor's four touchdown passes.
Cejay Ceniza sparked the defense with two interceptions, including an 84-yard touchdown return, and a fumble recovery. Strong safety Brandon Stanley was in on nine tackles.
"I was a little bit concerned with them having an open date (last week) and us having such a physical game down at Coastal Carolina," EKU Coach Dean Hood said. "But that's the one thing that I challenged the guys with is 'hey, we've got to back up a really physical game with another physical game against probably the most physical team in our league. So we've got to come out and be physical tonight.'
"And we did. We played Colonel football. We ran the ball. We stopped the run. We won the turnover battle. And we played good on special teams."
EKU piled up 558 yards of offense, outgaining the Gamecocks 327-112 on the ground.
By winning their OVC opener, the Colonels improved to 3-1 for the first time since 2009. The win was their third straight over the Gamecocks.
Denham, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound fifth-year senior, had Eastern's first two TDs. The win made a statement to the rest of the OVC, he said, coming against the team picked second in the league.
"They're a good team, probably one of the better teams in our conference. Over the years it's been a rivalry," Denham said. "So Coach got us fired up. We had to come out and put them down early; put a nail in the coffin."
The Colonels scored on five of seven possessions en route to a 34-8 halftime lead.
Pryor went 12-for-17 for 218 yards, hitting four receivers for touchdowns — Denham on a 28-yarder, Tyrone Goard for 38 yards, Cameron Bailey for 18 and Jeremy James for 3. Pryor completed one of three second-half passes for another 13 yards.
"It was great," Pryor said of the big half. "Having the time back there to get the ball in the play-makers' hands, get it to different people, it keeps everybody humble."
Denham ran 18 times in the half for 131 yards, eclipsing the century mark for the 11th time in 12 games.
"The offensive line. That's the key to everything," he said. "Offensive line dominates the (defensive) line, you can do anything."
Down 14-0 after a quarter, Jacksonville (1-2, 0-1) got an 8-yard TD toss from Coty Blanchard to Denzel Cheeks, followed by Jerry Slota's two-point conversion run, early in the second quarter.
EKU came back with Pryor's TD pass to Goard.
Ceniza's fumble recovery set up Bailey's tally.
After a Gamecocks punt, the Colonels scored with nine seconds left in the half, a pass in the flat to James. The score came four plays after holder Jordan Berry ran 7 yards to the 18 on a fourth-and-6 fake field-goal attempt.
Luke Pray's 21-yard field goal to open the second-half scoring made it 37-8.
The Gamecocks got a 23-yard touchdown pass from Marques Ivory to Gavin Ellis but, on the next play from scrimmage, Denham slashed off left tackle for a career-long 73-yard touchdown scamper.
Ceniza's 84-yard interception return came on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"Honestly, I tried to bait him a little bit," Ceniza said. "I was just looking: 'Is he really going to throw this ball?' And he did. So I just made a play on it and tried to take it back."
Jacksonville reached the EKU 2-yard line before Justin Bell got the Colonels' third interception of the game.
DaMarcus James scored for the Gamecoccks on a 3-yard run with 7:43 left.
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com