Everything Eastern Kentucky Coach Mark Elder had to say Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s game at UK (noon kickoff at Kroger Field in Lexington):
“Reflecting upon last weekend’s game first and foremost, we were disappointed with the outcome. We went with the intentions and belief that we were going to win the game. I thought we went in with a good plan. I thought, by and large, we executed our play fairly well. We just made a couple too many mistakes that put us not in great contention near the end of the game. So that was disappointing, because we felt like we were a talented enough team, a good enough team to go in there and make it even closer than what it was and have it come down to the last possession.
“A couple of drive killers for us really hurt us. And a couple of penalties that took points off the board. Two times we scored touchdowns that there was a penalty behind the ball that took points off the board, really kept us from being in a better position where that last drive could’ve been for the game.
“I will say this: very pleased with a lot of things from our team. We went out and played hard. Our guys believed in what we were doing. Believed in each other. Showed great resolve. Things didn’t go our way in the first half. We were down 17-0 at halftime. And you saw a team that didn’t bat an eye. Believed in each other and didn’t panic. Went out and kept doing what our plan was, and just executed a little bit better, put ourselves in a position to be in that game late in the game. So, I was pleased with that. Pleased with a lot of individual performances.
“Obviously, I gotta do a better job as a head coach of getting a couple of those things fixed and corrected so that we have better outcomes in the future. When we’re playing good teams like Western Kentucky, you can’t make more mistakes than they do, and that was the difference. Our own errors and our own mistakes.
“Looking ahead, another big challenge for us this week. We play the University of Kentucky who is a very good team. Very good program, and they’re right up the road. They’re a complete team. So when you look at them in all three phases, I think they’re a very good football team.
“You look at them — starting off offensively — it goes through their quarterback. Their quarterback (Stephen Johnson) is a very talented young man who’s a dual-threat guy. He was very good on some deep throws last year. You saw him torching some people on that a year ago. He’s got a great arm, very good accuracy. He’s also a dual-threat guy, so he can keep plays alive, run around a little bit, which is obviously very, very dangerous.
“Talking about their skill guys: their running back — they lost (Boom Williams) from last year — but their backup (Benny Snell), who I don’t even think played the first couple of games (last year), was a 1,000-yard rusher, 13 touchdowns. Very dynamic player. He’s fast and can run through arm tackles. Very, very impressed with (Snell). Their backup tailback (Sihiem King) also shows great speed on kickoff returns. Was impressed with him.
“Their receivers — they got a couple of really big guys on the perimeter that cause matchup problems. 6-3, 6-6 guys that are difficult to handle as a corner. And then they got a slot (Garrett Johnson) who’s talented, can make you miss, does a really good job with the ball in his hands and he’s one of their all-time leading receivers. So I think he’s really good as well.
“Their tight end (C.J. Conrad), I remember him from the recruiting days. I had visited him numerous times. He’s a very talented guy. Obviously, a focal point in their passing game. Led them in yards and receptions last week. He’s a very good blocker.
“Up front, they’re playing a bunch of guys. And they’re big, they’re physical, they’re earth movers and they can knock you off the ball. So, we got our hands full as far as what they bring to the table offensively.
“Defensively, I think they’re a big-time, big-time defense. They’ve taken big strides from a year ago to now. I thought they were good last year, and then you look at the progress they’ve made from a year ago, it’s significant. They’re really good up front. They’re big with their three down guys. They’re really big, physical, hard to move. Their linebackers are good tacklers. Their two inside guys are good tacklers. Physical football players. Very athletic. I think that their two outside linebackers, D-ends, whatever you want to call them (Josh Allen and Denzil Ware) — they’re big-time players. They’re NFL, bona fide, big-time guys. They’re physical. They can rush the passer. They get into some even stuff on third down and they can come after it. Those two guys are special, special players.
“Their secondary, they’ve got a lot of experience back. They’re long. Their corners (Derrick Baity and Chris Westry) are 6-3 and 6-4. They’re long, they’re athletic and they can run. They’re really, really good on defense.
“And I think that they’re very solid on special teams. They very much remind me of ourselves. They do a lot of different things punt-wise, and their other three units — they kind of do what they do and they do it well. Their returner last week on the kickoff return (King) had a big one. I think they’re explosive in the return game. Solid, sound on special teams.
“They’re a very experienced team. They have 270 career starts returning, by my calculations. I could be off by one or two, but they’re a very, very experienced team. I remember a lot of these guys from two years ago when I was at Tennessee. They’re the same guys, they’re just not making freshmen and rookie mistakes anymore. They’re veteran guys. So, it’s a really, really good football team, a challenge in front of us. We think we’re a really, really good football team. And I can tell you our guys are extremely excited to take them on this Saturday. We had a great practice on Sunday, very focused. And the guys are locked in a ready to go for this week.”
On new QB Tim Boyle’s debut performance Saturday: “Tim did what we expected him to do. He’s played Division I college football, and that showed. He was out there playing like a guy who’s played a lot of football. What I was most excited about with Tim Boyle was the fact that he managed the game. That’s what we want our quarterbacks to do is manage the game. You take your shots when they’re there. Not because, ‘I feel like throwing the ball 40 yards down the field.’ We’re going to call plays where there are shots. And sometimes we’re going to throw, and sometimes we’re going to check the ball down. He did a really good job of that. He didn’t put the ball in jeopardy.
“And the neat thing about that is he managed the game really well, but yet put up good numbers. He threw for 320. Sometimes, quarterbacks hate hearing the words, ‘Hey, we want you to manage the game.’ Manage the game doesn’t mean that you’re going to go 9-for-12 for 120 yards. It means that you have to take what’s given. And he took what was given. Sometimes he checked the ball down and got 5 yards. One time, he checked the ball down for minus-2. I’m good with that. Why? Because that was the right throw. He managed the game really well. Didn’t put the ball in jeopardy. Didn’t turn the ball over. So I was very pleased with that.
“And I was especially pleased to see — we can talk about being a great manager of the football game — and that can still mean you can put up 300-plus yards passing. So I was pleased with that. Pleased with the fact that he looked like a veteran, because he is.”
On some guys on EKU’s team almost beating UK two years ago: “Obviously, I watched that game two years ago because we were breaking them down where I was. I will tell you this: what happened last year, what happened two years ago has zero indication upon things now. Those guys that were part of that game should be proud of the great effort they put forth to challenge a very good football team. They should. But a two-years-ago team is not this year’s team. Every year, there’s going to be a new team. A new identity. And new people. So, what we do this year is what matters, and there’s a whole different chemistry in the locker room. There’s a whole different atmosphere here, and so forth. As there will be again next year. Every team is a unique entity in its own. So, certainly, those guys should be proud of playing a great game two years ago. That has no indication on what’s going to happen this year in any way, shape or form.”
On EKU’s offensive line play (only one sack allowed) Saturday: “Yeah, I was pleased with how we protected the quarterback, certainly. We did have a mistake on one where we gave up one sack. We’ll get that corrected. But for a (Western Kentucky) team that was very good up front, I thought that those guys did a great job of protecting the quarterback, I really did. We have to get a couple of things corrected in the run game. We didn’t run the ball as well as we’d like to. They were the No. 2 rush defense in the country a year ago. So we knew that was going to be a problem. We knew that they were going to create issues, because they were very physical and stout. But I was pleased with our pass (protection), keeping our quarterback upright. He didn’t get touched a whole bunch. We just gotta improve in our run game.”
On leading returning rusher Ethan Thomas not playing last Saturday: “Ethan is practicing. He was held out of last week’s game. It was intentional. He didn’t make the trip. Wasn’t dressed. But he’s going to be there this week. He’s practicing today. He’s on the trip, so, yeah, nothing major with Ethan.”
On getting backup QB Austin Scott in for some plays last Saturday: “Yeah, at the end of the day, that was a decision that was made two weeks ago. We wanted to get Austin reps. For a couple of reasons. One, first and foremost, he had a great camp. And he played well enough that he deserved reps. Two, he’s a redshirt freshmen. He’s our backup quarterback. We certainly are very, very hopeful that we won’t have any issues with injuries at the quarterback position all year long. However, if something arises, if down the road we’re in a tight ball game — it’s the fourth quarter and we’re down a score and something were to happen to our starting quarterback, and our backup quarterback has never taken a college snap in meaningful time — that’s not going to be putting us in the best position to capitalize and win a game that way. We want to give him some experience in meaningful time, so that if something happens and it’s an emergency and he’s got to go win the game for us, he’s not nervous. He’s not sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to throw my first pass.’ He’s already done that. He’s thrown a couple passes in meaningful downs. Not just mop-up time at the end of a game. Meaningful downs. And, hey, your execution is going to make a difference in the outcome of this game. We want to get Austin opportunities for those two reasons. But, mainly, he’s earned it as well.”
On media day comments that he hates seeing other programs’ (specifically UK) gear around campus: “We’re here in Richmond. We’re the university here in Richmond and we should see only EKU stuff here in Richmond. Obviously, when we travel up to Lexington, we anticipate seeing a whole bunch of UK gear, as it should be up in Lexington. That’s the school in Lexington. But, yeah, it drives everybody crazy to see anything besides EKU gear here.”
On recruiting C.J. Conrad at Tennessee and what he thinks about him then and now: “I think he’s a really good football player. He’s a complete tight end, which is — they’re hard to come by. Usually you get either that guy that really is about a couple of Big Macs away from being a tackle, or you get the guy that should be a receiver who doesn’t really want to block anybody and is upset every time he has to line up in the box. He’s a guy who can do both. Obviously you saw him a week ago. He had a touchdown, a really long catch, 90-some yards on three receptions. But, yet, you also see him in there blocking his tail off. He’s physical. Really impressed with him.
“And, yeah, I remember when we recruited him at Tennessee. He came to a one-day camp the summer before his junior year, I was really impressed with him. I think he’s a good football player, and I’m not surprised at all to see the success that he’s having there at Kentucky.”
On EKU’s defense this week: “Obviously, we’ve got to do a good job of keeping the ball inside and in front. We have to limit big plays. We have to contain the quarterback. I think he has the opportunity to open a game up, because he’s a true dual-threat. He can open it up throwing the football down the field. He can open it up by taking off and running and hurting you in that regard. So we have to keep the ball inside and in front. We gotta make them earn touchdowns. We can’t have balls thrown over our head or mistakes. Again, our mistakes leading to big plays and touchdowns. We have to make them earn every drive that they have. If they’re going to score a touchdown, I want to see a 12-play drive where they nickeled and dimed us all the way down the field. I don’t want to see long deals that are mistakes by us. If somebody is able to put together 12-, 13-play drives, you made them earn it. I want to see our defense do that. Tackle well, keep the ball inside and in front, play sound defense.”
On UK’s size advantage in this game: “They are bigger than us. You particularly look on both sides of the line of scrimmage, they’re bigger than us. And I think that we’re getting bigger. We’re recruiting bigger. But they — just across the board up front — I think their shortest guy is 6-3. They’re big. They’re all 300 pounds on their offensive line. They’re big, physical guys. We’re not quite as big at the defensive tackles as what they are up front. I don’t think we’re ever going to be 330-pound guys at the defensive tackle position.
“And then you look out on the perimeter, and you look at their receivers. Their receivers are big. Now, I think we’re pretty big at receiver. But their receivers are certainly really big, and their secondary is long. That’s something that stands out. I remember those two corners (Baity and Westry) from two years ago. They’re 6-3 and 6-4. That’s really long. I mean, that’s long in the NFL. They’re tall, long guys. They make a lot of plays by putting their hands up. When they press, it’s hard to get around them because of how long they are. Certainly, size is a little bit of a factor in that across the board.
“But we’re recruiting to get bigger. That is a goal of ours: to be bigger and more physical. The old saying: ‘Big people beat up little people.’ We’re trying to grow. We’re trying to get bigger.”