One might think, after last Saturday’s 56-10 setback at Power 5 West Virginia dropped their record to 0-2, that the Eastern Kentucky Colonels would hang their heads as they trod back into their tunnel, the home team belting John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at midfield clear for these fatigued visitors to hear.
In 2020, however, no game is taken for granted. By no means is EKU exactly pleased with the lopsided outcome on Milan Puskar Stadium’s scoreboard, as Colonels coaches and players were the first to say. But as they are joined by just three other of the 120-plus FCS programs in an unprecedented endeavor—attempting to complete an entirely nonconference fall slate while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic—every contest is valued that much more.
Only EKU, Central Arkansas, Abilene Christian and Stephen F. Austin have opted to play full fall slates and not come back and attempt a run at a spring season. In fact, the Colonels actually added a game this past week against Southland Conference offensive juggernaut Houston Baptist. That EKU home game will be played Oct. 3.
“It’s just a blessing to wake up and be able to play,” HERO Sports Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference running back Alonzo Booth said after the loss on Mountaineer Field. “We are one of the [few] teams that does get to come out and play. It’s just a blessing to come out and actually play big-time football.”
Booth labored to 45 yards rushing on the day, and although that number may not jump off the page, it was a hard-earned figure against one of the Big 12’s more unforgiving defenses. On seven carries, the bruising redshirt junior averaged 6.4 yards. Eastern Kentucky’s lone touchdown drive was kickstarted by back-to-back runs of 8 and 15 yards by Booth, who was 16th nationally in rushing touchdowns in 2019.
Of his approach to and penchant for shedding contact by even imposing defenders in the Bowl Subdivision, Booth said, “It’s just a mental thing. The running back room, we’re real close, we’re a real tight-knit group. I’m the oldest, but we got a lot of young guys—I make sure as a captain that we’re tight together. And we spend a lot of time together, so they hold my back, I’m on theirs. It just makes it even better. It makes me want to go out and show I might be starting, but when the young guys come up, this is what we need y’all to do. I need to set the expectation for them.”
EKU first-year head coach Walt Wells is in his third stint with the Colonels but first at the helm after assisting the legendary Roy Kidd for several years and later returning to Richmond, Ky. for another year as an assistant in 2015. He echoed Booth’s deep gratitude for the chance to go the distance in such a turbulent fall for the FCS and emphasized that the route Eastern Kentucky has taken, seen as aggressive by some, was student-athlete-driven throughout.
“I think it speaks volumes for our kids,” Wells told HERO Sports. “They wanted to do it. It’s not us [the coaches and staff]; the men in that locker room decided to play the game. Obviously, as coaches, you want to do that. You can’t talk to a coach across America that didn’t want to play. But our young men in that locker room had a passion to play, and once we got the schedule set and got everything going, they were ready to go. And then it speaks to our administration on the ability to get that done, and how important football is at Eastern Kentucky, establishing the culture that we’re trying to establish in year one. We’re grateful for the opportunity.”
The Colonels’ appreciation for that scarce opportunity was only strengthened during the bus ride into Morgantown, W.V., Wells added.
“As you drove in, you see the high-school moms, dads, and the kids protesting that they [West Virginia University] can play, ‘Why can’t we play?’ Well, it shows you how important football is to everybody, and so for us, driving in and seeing that, that pulls at you a little bit because you know there’s a lot of young men that’s not gonna get that opportunity, both high school, college. And it’s tough.”
The FCS is unlike the FBS, perhaps now more glaringly than ever: All of the Championship Subdivision conferences are sorely lacking rapid COVID-19 testing reportedly being secured by the PAC-12 and are missing the mounting public pressure to play being heaped on the Big Ten from high places. In the FCS, there is no turning back to or waffling on fall 2020 when it comes to conference play. Leagues are working on settling tentative spring competition plans as the FCS looks to have its reported 16-team spring playoff concept approved by NCAA decision-makers, who originally recommended that fall-championship sports held in spring be conducted at 50 percent of normal playoff fields, which would leave the FCS with a narrow 12-team bracket (including the standard 10 automatic qualifiers).
By pursuing a complete fall campaign via an old-school barnstorming of nonconference foes in the FBS and FCS, Eastern Kentucky is betting on itself, both in terms of its coronavirus-handling protocol and its ability to show well on a rather exclusive stage while bypassing whatever can come of the spring, which could be the crowning of a national champion. Wells, however, is encouraged by his team’s incremental progress from Week 1 to 2 and is well aware of the benefit EKU’s open date can have after consecutive FBS losses, which can leave any team nicked up.
“We’re moving in the right direction, playing a lot of young guys, and we just gotta keep grinding out with those guys and keep those guys learning on the run, so to speak … [The upcoming bye week] comes at a good time for us. We got The Citadel right after that, so it gives us a chance to focus on their triple-option, gives our guys a chance to heal up, rest a little bit from a long camp and two tough games at the beginning. But we’re gonna come in, we’re gonna work, we’re gonna get things done, and we’re gonna be prepared and ready to go and go fight for victory against The Citadel.”