Two years ago the Eastern Kentucky University football team had its FBS cousin to the north on the ropes.
A 15-yard touchdown pass from Bennie Coney to Devin Borders capped a 68-yard drive that gave the Colonels a 27-13 lead over Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium with 7:39 left in the game. An improbable upset was on the verge of becoming reality.
But Kentucky responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in Jojo Kemp’s 7-yard touchdown run to pull the Cats within 27-20 as the clock ticked under five minutes. Then UK forced a three-and-out and sent the game to overtime on Patrick Towles’ 5-yard TD pass to Dorian Baker. Another scoring strike from Towles to Baker gave UK the lead. As EKU tried to extend the game on the next possession, UK’s Cory Johnson came up with a game-sealing sack on fourth-and-12 that sent the Colonels back home to Richmond with a bitter taste in their mouths.
Jeffrey Canady was a sophomore in 2015. He made five tackles against the Wildcats. So what does the Barbourville native remember about the day two years ago when his squad came painfully close to scoring a watershed upset?
“Everything,” Canady said. “I remember everything. A lot of shock ... we had the game won.
“We thought we were gonna shock the world. We played great, we played lights out. Sometimes the ball doesn’t fall your way.”
If the ball does fall in the Colonels’ favor this time around against the Cats it’s likely that junior defensive end Aaron Patrick will have played a major role. As a true freshman in 2015, Patrick recorded just one tackle against UK. But much has changed since then. The 6-foot-4, 227-pounder was named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference first team after his sophomore season and is a preseason All-OVC coaches’ selection this year. He plans to put his stamp on the rematch with the Cats.
“Personally, I just circle the UK (game), especially because I feel like they snuck one away from us two years ago. So we’ve gotta go out there and get that one back,” he said.
The loss was especially crushing to running back Ethan Thomas, the Colonels’ leading rusher each of the past two seasons. As a true freshman, Thomas topped 100 yards from scrimmage against the Cats, gaining 84 yards on 20 carries and catching two passes for 26 yards.
“That one left a little fire in my stomach,” Thomas said. “We’ve got some unfinished business to settle and we’re looking forward to it. That’s gonna be a really good game and I’ve got one hundred-percent faith in our guys that we’re gonna come to Lexington and bring it.”
EKU head coach Mark Elder wasn’t around for the last matchup between the Cats and Colonels. He was finishing up his final year as an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee. But it took just one full season in Richmond to develop a distaste for the clothing choices of many local football fans. Elder is itching to take the field against Kentucky for the first time as a head coach.
“There’s 30 minutes that separate us from Kentucky. Our guys couldn’t be more excited about that game ... you get sick of being as close as you are to Lexington seeing UK gear left and right,” Elder said. “Nothing kind of turns my stomach or our players’ stomachs more than that. So they’re excited for that opportunity.”
Come Sept. 9, the Colonels will have an opportunity to erase the taste of 2015’s most bitter defeat. And perhaps convince some local college football fans to rethink their game-day apparel.
Coach: Mark Elder (second season)
Last season: 3-8 overall (2-6 and eighth place in Ohio Valley Conference)
Returning starters: 15 (5 offense, 7 defense, 3 special teams)
Outlook: After a disappointing eighth-place campaign last season, EKU was picked to finish seventh in the OVC in this year’s preseason media poll. But Elder said the Colonels are showing signs of remarkable progress in the second full season under his regime.
“You’ve got 50 guys who have been a part of this and know what the expectation level is and what they need to be doing,” he said. “Having that established group is huge in comparison to year one, so the other half of the team is following those guys ... we’re transforming from a coach-led team to a player-led team.”
Question marks: Not only will the Colonels be breaking in a new starting quarterback, they’ll be fielding a fairly inexperienced pass-catching corps. Gone are top receiving threats Devin Borders, Dan Crimmins and Bryan Green. Borders led the team with 739 yards and six touchdowns last year. Fortunately, senior wide receiver Ryan Markush is back. He started all 11 games and had 556 yards receiving and three touchdowns. The rest of the receivers on the roster have combined for just eight total starts for the Colonels.
Game of the year: There’s no doubt that the coaching staff and veteran players have circled the first two opponents on the schedule. EKU has been open about its desire to make the jump from the FCS to the FBS in the near future, and the Sept. 2 opener at reigning Conference USA champion Western Kentucky and Sept. 9 trip to Lexington for a showdown with Kentucky provide the Colonels a chance to test their mettle against in-state FBS rivals. Multiple upperclassmen have mentioned their long memories when it comes to EKU’s heartbreaking 34-27 overtime loss at the field formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium in 2015, so count the Colonels’ date with the Cats as must-see TV (Sept. 9, SEC Network, noon).
Five key players
QB Tim Boyle: A 6-foot-4, 226-pound transfer from UConn, the redshirt senior sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Elder named Boyle his starter on Tuesday. He saw action in 25 FBS games with the Huskies. Boyle started four games as a true freshman at UConn, completing 59 of 133 passes for 621 yards. Boyle said he’s eager to see live-game action once again.
“It’s been almost two years now so I’m very anxious to get back on the field again and hear the crowd,” he said.
RB Ethan Thomas: The 5-foot-11, 203-pound junior from Johnson City, Tenn., was the Colonels’ leading rusher in a crowded backfield each of the last two years. As a freshman, Thomas gained 498 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry. His average dipped to 4.1 yards per carry last season. Thomas was a three-time all-state running back in high school.
LB Jeffrey Canady: A native of Barbourville and alum of Knox Central High School, the 6-foot, 233-pound senior turned the corner in a big way last year. After starting just one game as a sophomore, he started all 11 games as a junior, leading the team with 123 tackles (11.2 per game).
“I really want to leave a legacy,” Canady said. “I’m one of four guys left who I came in with ... I want to leave my mark as far as work ethic and effort, just doing all the right things.”
DL Aaron Patrick: The 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior was named to the All-OVC first team and Sophomore All-America first team last year after leading the Colonels with 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks from the defensive end position. He was selected to this year’s preseason All-OVC coaches’ team.
“When you have good achievements you don’t want to come back and flatline and have people say ‘where did that go?’ You have to aim for progress, you have to do more,” Patrick said. “For me personally, that’s the next step. I have to do more than I did last year.”
DB Nigel Bethel II: After transferring from Texas Tech, the 5-foot-9, 187-pound multi-purpose threat from Miami, Fla., played in all 11 games for the Colonels as a junior last year, recording 40 tackles and six pass breakups along with an interception and a fumble recovery. He also returned six kickoffs for 141 yards (23.5 per return). Out of high school, Bethel was a four-star prospect according to Rivals.com, tabbed as the No. 24 cornerback in the 2014 class and No. 48 overall prospect in Florida.