UK Football

Mark Story: Eastern Kentucky deserved better than a loss to Kentucky in overtime

Eastern Kentucky Colonels quarterback Bennie Coney (4) celebrated a touchdown during the first half as UK hosted EKU at The New Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 3, 2015 in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Mahan
Eastern Kentucky Colonels quarterback Bennie Coney (4) celebrated a touchdown during the first half as UK hosted EKU at The New Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 3, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Mahan Herald-Leader

What a moment it was shaping up to be for Eastern Kentucky University.

Playing with the initials of late teammate Joey Kraemer on their helmets, Coach Dean Hood's Colonels walked into the new Commonwealth Stadium and were shocking the state of Kentucky.

EKU quarterback Bennie Coney was hitting timely throws and expertly managing the game. Running backs Dy'Shawn Mobley and Ethan Thomas were moving the pile.

Eastern return man Stanley Absanon was electric in setting up touchdowns with a long kickoff return and a long punt return.

The Eastern defense was stifling Kentucky's running game. Led by Noah Spence, EKU's pass rush continually flushed Patrick Towles from the pocket.

When Eastern's Devin Borders caught his second touchdown of the game with 7:39 left in the fourth period, EKU of the OVC led UK of the SEC 27-13.

The Colonels were that close to the biggest victory for an Eastern football team since the second of Roy Kidd's two national championships in 1982.

What was left of a Commonwealth crowd of 63,380 was stone silent.

Then, in cruel fashion, what would have been a victory for the ages slipped away from the Colonels.

Patrick Towles drove Kentucky to touchdowns on its final two drives of regulation and then again on UK's drive in the first overtime, and UK averted what would have been a disastrous and embarrassing defeat with a 34-27 OT victory over Eastern Kentucky.

"I'll be honest with you, it was not looking very good," Stoops said afterward.

UK snapped a six-game losing streak against in-state foes and ran its all-time record against EKU to 4-0.

This time, frankly, EKU deserved victory.

The Colonels put checks in so many of the categories that a team from the FCS needs to hit to upset a Power-Five conference foe.

EKU needed to control both lines of scrimmage. Check.

With Mobley, the former Kentucky player, and Thomas, a freshman from Johnson City, Tenn., continually breaking tackles, Eastern outrushed UK a shocking 180-55.

Defensively, EKU throttled UK's running game. Led by Ohio State transfer Spence, for most of the game, Eastern prevented Towles from getting comfortable in the pocket with four sacks and two other hurries.

EKU needed solid quarterback play. Check.

In Eastern's previous meeting with a big-time foe, a 35-0 loss at North Carolina State, Coney struggled. In Raleigh, he completed only 5-of-19 passes for 79 yards.

Against Kentucky, however, Coney protected the football (no interceptions) and was quietly efficient. The transfer from Cincinnati completed 19-of-32 passes for 183 yards and two TDs.

To have a chance, the Colonels needed Absanon to make big plays all over the field. Check.

Once an Arizona State signee, the 5-foot-11, 177-pound senior from Auburndale, Fla., picked off a Towles pass and diced Kentucky's kick return teams (both kickoff and punts) for returns that led to EKU touchdowns.

Finally, to win, Eastern needed to play with belief and fight that befits a program that, three decades ago, was a perennial national title contender in the division then known as 1-AA. Check.

Playing six days after Kraemer, a redshirt defensive lineman who had transferred from UTEP, was killed in a car accident, Eastern played with pride and passion.

Unfortunately for the Colonels, when victory seemed within grasp, Kentucky at last awakened from a game-long slumber.

A team with 85 scholarship players is always likely to wear down a foe from a level where 63 scholarships is the limit.

Hood, not to mention Eastern fans, will see in their nightmares a three-and-out offensive series that EKU turned in after Kentucky scored with 3:59 left in the game to pull within 27-20.

Desperately needing to move the chains to give their game defense some time to rest, the Colonels couldn't do it. To Kentucky's credit, once EKU opened the door, Towles, Dorian Baker (game-tying TD catch and game-winning TD catch) stormed through.

There is no such thing as "moral victories" in college football. There's a winner and a loser.

But there is honor in a team leaving all it had on the field in a maximum effort against the odds to claim an upset for all time.

That's what Eastern Kentucky did.

Fact is, the Colonels deserved better than that.