Rivals upbeat entering final clash

Football teams, it seems, make the most improvement between their first and second games. So Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky should be markedly better than their opening losses last weekend.

Their coaches hope so as the archrivals collide at Roy Kidd Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday for what might be the last game in the long and storied series.

Western Coach David Elson assessed his team's 31-13 loss at Indiana and wants his quarterback, K.J. Black, to start off better and find his rhythm throwing the ball. Plus, Elson said, the WKU defense must tackle better.

Eastern's Dean Hood wants to raise the mental efficiency rating on both sides of the ball following the Colonels' 40-7 loss at Cincinnati in his debut as head coach.

The Hilltoppers don't want to fall behind 17-0 after 19 minutes.

The Colonels don't want to fall behind 26-0 at halftime.

"We learned a lot from the Indiana film," Elson said. "It comes back to running and executing our system."

"We played hard but not real smart," Hood said. "I was proud of our second half. We didn't look at the scoreboard but kept playing. I liked how physical we were. It was a hard-hitting game."

But Eastern-Western is an entity unto itself. For many years a struggle for conference supremacy, the rivalry remained intense even when Western left the Ohio Valley in 1982.

The teams played annually, with only a two-year break, but the current contract expires at game's end.

Western made the commitment to compete at the highest level with 85 scholarships and will play a full Sun Belt Conference schedule in 2009. The Toppers also will be eligible for a bowl invitation.

Eastern remains in the Football Championship Subdivision, which allows 63 scholarships and offers a post-season playoff to determine its national champion.

"We're excited about the direction we're headed and the opportunities that have come our way," Elson said. "The negative is that it doesn't allow us to continue a great rivalry like this."

Hood said, "No doubt the rivalry adds hype to (the game). It's hard to explain unless you're around it."

The game is easy to explain.

Western is coming off a well-played second half at Indiana, according to Elson.

"We began moving the ball, got points on the board, forced a turnover on defense," he said. "We just were terrible tackling (quarterback) Kellen Lewis.

"Our special teams were sound and solid. We took away a lot of positives."

So did Hood and the Colonels, especially quarterback Allan Holland, 2007 OVC Offensive Player of the Year, and Brandon Gathof, two-time All-OVC safety.

"We were close to making big plays a lot of times," Holland said. "It's a matter of when everything comes together. The sooner the better."

Mistakes on defense are "very fixable," Gathof said. "We had alignment and assignment mistakes, but we're definitely headed in the right direction."