RICHMOND — Early on in its homecoming game Saturday, it seemed Eastern Kentucky might have been looking ahead to next week's road trip to Ohio Valley Conference leader and top-ranked Jacksonville State. Eastern was unusually sloppy out of the gate against Tennessee State, littering the field with yellow flags to the tune of eight penalties for 75 yards in the first half, including three 15-yard personal fouls.
But the Colonels defense refused to let the Tigers capitalize on those mistakes, routinely harassing quarterback Ronald Butler into errant throws and shutting down the Tigers rushing game. Once the offense got on track the rout was on, and the No. 13 Colonels cruised to a 45-21 victory at Roy Kidd Stadium.
Other than an ill-advised back-shoulder pass that was intercepted early on, junior quarterback Bennie Coney was in complete control of the offense. He led Eastern on a methodical drive on its opening possession, eventually hitting Bryan Green for a 16-yard score after rolling to his right and firing a dart into the end zone. The catch marked the third straight game in which Green, a first-year transfer from Akron, has scored. Green added an acrobatic one-handed grab in the flat that he ran 6 yards into the end zone in the third quarter to put the Colonels up 24-0.
"Oh man, that was awesome," said Coney of Green's catch. "I threw that behind him actually, and he just stuck his hand out and grabbed it. He made me look good."
Colonels Coach Dean Hood agreed with Coney.
"That one he caught I was like, 'whew, what a terrible throw,'" Hood said. "Then Green goes up with that Odell Beckham thing and keeps on running."
Coney held tough in the pocket all afternoon, sidestepping pressure while keeping his eyes downfield and hitting eight different receivers — some open, some not so open. He finished the game 27-for-41 passing for 292 yards and three touchdowns, adding another on the ground.
"He's been phenomenal," Hood said of Coney's play lately. "You're just excited for our team because he's managing the game, he's making good throws, he's protecting the ball, he's keeping his eyes downfield when he's breaking the pocket. He's just doing everything really, really well right now."
Eastern's offense struggled a bit after that first drive, but the floodgates opened with 3:25 left in the second quarter when Earl Thomas burst through the middle of the Tennessee State defensive line and raced 80 yards for a touchdown to give the Colonels a 17-0 halftime lead.
Thomas started at running back in place of University of Kentucky transfer Dy'Shawn Mobley, who played through a leg injury in last week's 27-10 win over Southeast Missouri but was held out against the Tigers because of illness. Thomas, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound freshman from Johnson City, Tenn., racked up 153 yards on 18 carries, averaging more than eight yards per rush. He sparked a Colonels running game that amassed 256 yards to just 129 for the Tigers.
After a tough 12-yard touchdown run by Coney put the Colonels up 31-0 midway through the third quarter, Eastern's defense got caught napping. Sophomore running back Erick Evans found a hole and raced 62 yards for a touchdown, marking the first points Tennessee State has scored against the Colonels since 2011. After a 4-yard scoring strike from Coney to Devin Borders put Eastern up 38-7, the Tigers used touchdown passes of 64 and 18 yards to get within 17 points at 38-21 with 10:07 left.
"It's not tough to have a big lead, I'll take that every day. But it's tough to coach that way," Hood said. "You don't wanna blitz because you don't wanna have them get a big play, but then again you don't wanna sit in base (defense). ... It's a lot more difficult than people think to coach with a big lead."
The Colonels made sure to quash any notions of a Tigers upset on their next possession. They churned out a 17-play scoring drive that ground the game clock down to 2:25 in the fourth quarter and culminated it with an 11-yard touchdown run by Jared Sanders.
Linebacker Trey Thomas picked off a desperation pass on Tennessee State's next possession to seal the win and send the Colonels (5-2, 4-0 OVC) into a first-place showdown on Saturday at Jacksonville State (6-1, 4-0 OVC).