The foundation for the largest comeback win in at least 14 years for the Eastern Kentucky football team came during the summer.
It wasn’t a schematic adjustment discovered by head coach Walt Wells and his coaching staff, but rather the building of team chemistry and trust during the offseason that made a 22-point comeback win at Central Arkansas possible on Oct. 16.
Trailing by 22 points with as little as 19 minutes left in the game, EKU scored 25 straight points to defeat Central Arkansas, 38-35, sealing the win by blocking a Central Arkansas field goal attempt with two minutes left.
“We don’t look at the scoreboard. We just want to be the best version of ourselves,” Wells said last week during EKU’s bye week. “I think there’s a belief that no matter what the deficit is we can come back.”
This mentality and the cohesion necessary to create it didn’t exist last season.
Wells was named the head coach at EKU in December 2019, just months before the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States.
A challenging 2020 offseason limited the Colonels’ ability to form relationships between the coaching staff and players, culminating in a 3-6 record from a 2020 season that EKU played as an independent.
Ahead of Wells’ second season in charge in Richmond, the Colonels completed a move from the Ohio Valley Conference to the ASUN Conference, which is now sponsoring football for the first time.
This summer also gave the Colonels time to get to know each other, and build a rapport that made a comeback like the one in Conway, Arkansas, a reality.
“They (players) learned to trust us (the coaching staff) and we’ve learned to trust them and it’s a mutual respect we have. Do we always agree? No, but families don’t always agree,” Wells explained. “Families argue, families have problems with each other, but in the end they’re all family and they go one way. I think we’ve developed a relationship to where we trust each other and respect each other enough that we can go do those things.”
Despite becoming EKU’s head coach in December 2019, Wells said he didn’t meet most of his players’ parents until late in the 2020 season because of COVID-19.
In contrast, Wells has praised the value of bonding opportunities in recent months, when EKU players visited his home and met his wife, Jennifer, and children, Madison and K.J.
“It’s all important to do that, (to) see our coaches as husbands and as fathers and different things and I think when they see that they understand ... we just build a different bond,” Wells said. “Then we’ve got to see them. We’ve got to see them as fathers, as who they are, who they want to be and where they come from and we’ve been able to get to know that.”
In August, redshirt junior linebacker Matthew Jackson described preseason preparations in 2021 as “a breath of fresh air,” and the corresponding on-field performance has followed suit.
EKU is 5-2 overall in 2021 and can double last season’s win total with a victory Saturday afternoon at Roy Kidd Stadium in Richmond against Lamar.
The challenge is a scheduling alliance between the ASUN Conference and the Western Athletic Conference that will allow for seven combined schools to be eligible for automatic qualification into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
EKU’s final four regular-season games are part of the challenge, including a Nov. 13 game at defending FCS national champion Sam Houston State.
“I feel like it does mean something to a lot of guys on our team,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Parker McKinney said of being ranked. “Just simply because it shows all our hard work is finally paying off and that we really are going in the right direction.”
McKinney’s health has been a significant factor in EKU’s success this season. McKinney started the first six games of the 2020 season before suffering a season-ending injury to his right throwing shoulder.
He’s been behind center for all seven Colonels games this season, averaging 187 passing yards per game and throwing multiple touchdown passes in three games.
McKinney’s mobility has also been a highlight for the EKU offense: After attempting 59 rushes for 150 yards last season, McKinney has run for 332 yards on 56 attempts this season, and he has a rushing touchdown in four straight games.
McKinney’s production on the ground has come alongside that of redshirt freshman running back Da’Joun Hewitt, a transfer to EKU from Purdue who had three rushing scores in the season-opening win at Western Carolina.
“I’m scrambling on pass plays and I’m getting downfield whenever defenses are dropping out, that kind of stuff,” McKinney said. “Last year it was a lot more designed runs. This year we have some designed runs too, I feel like I’m seeing the field a little bit better, my field vision’s a little bit better this year.”
Defensively, five Colonels have recorded at least two sacks this season, including Jackson and redshirt junior defensive lineman Shane Burks II, an alumnus of Lexington’s Bryan Station High School.
“We really care about each other,” Burks said Tuesday. “We love each other and we play for each other and that’s what you want to achieve with the team.”
The bus ride that EKU took from Richmond to Conway and back is about 18 hours round trip.
Undoubtedly, some EKU players were watching the clock for the excursion to end.
But all Wells cares about is that they don’t do so during games.
“I think it goes back to the fact that we don’t scoreboard watch and we have to play each play like a life of its own and continue to get the best version of each player that’s on the field at that time.” Wells said. “I think you saw that in our defensive performance in that 14-play (defensive) drive at the end of the Central Arkansas game that ended in a blocked field goal. They were fighting to the very end.”
Lamar at No. 19 Eastern Kentucky
When: 2 p.m.
Live video broadcast: ESPN Plus (online only)
Records: Lamar 2-5 (0-3 ASUN), Eastern Kentucky 5-2 (2-0)