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With foundation in place, EKU football hopes to grow from its FCS playoffs return

Walt Wells has had the kind of year that allows you to face facts with blunt honesty.

In August, Wells suffered a heart attack inside his campus office in Richmond and nearly died. This prevented him from serving as the acting head coach for the Colonels’ first two games of the season, which included a stunning seven-overtime road win at FBS program Bowling Green.

By late November, Wells made it a point to emphasize the positives immediately after EKU’s chaotic 2022 season came to a close.

The Colonels made it back to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2014 and hosted a national postseason game at CG Bank Field at Roy Kidd Stadium for the first time since 2014, as well.

But even after experiencing what he has in the last four months, Wells was able to articulate what went wrong for EKU in a 52-41 loss to Gardner-Webb in the first round of the FCS playoffs, a defeat that means EKU (7-5) is still without a postseason win since 1994.

Gardner-Webb (7-5) earned its first FCS playoffs win in its first postseason appearance, and the Runnin’ Bulldogs will travel to No. 5 seed William & Mary in next weekend’s second round.

“Obviously I’m blessed, I’m thankful to be alive, but that doesn’t help those seniors walking out the door that are hurt,” Wells said. “Some of them, that’s the last time they’ll ever put on the pads. That’s a hard reality to take.”

Eastern Kentucky Colonels Matthew Jackson (33) tackles Gardner-Webb running back Narii Gaither (22) during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.
Eastern Kentucky Colonels Matthew Jackson (33) tackles Gardner-Webb running back Narii Gaither (22) during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.

Statistically speaking, it’s not hard to figure out where Saturday night’s game got away from EKU. The Runnin’ Bulldogs totaled 405 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, with senior running back Narii Gaither accounting for 245 rushing yards and two scores on his own. Senior quarterback Bailey Fisher added 88 rushing yards with three rushing TDs.

Postgame, Gardner-Webb head coach Tre Lamb said Saturday was probably the first time this season that Gaither was fully healthy for a game. Lamb said the goal for the Runnin’ Bulldogs was 200 rushing yards, a mark they more than doubled.

“It’s been a concern of ours,” Wells said of EKU’s run defense, which entered Saturday’s game allowing opponents to average more than 220 rushing yards. “We’ve played teams with the same group of guys and stopped the run a whole lot better, we just couldn’t stop it tonight. It wasn’t anything magical that they did other than blocking and breaking tackles.”

The Colonels allowed a season-high 31 points in the first half, and Gardner-Webb averaged nearly eight yards per rush without turning the ball over once. The Runnin’ Bulldogs also averaged 47 yards per kick return across three returns.

EKU’s high-powered passing attack tried its best to keep up with the ground game of Gardner-Webb, as redshirt junior quarterback Parker McKinney posted another sensational stat line.

McKinney was 37 of 57 through the air Saturday for a career-best 454 passing yards and five passing touchdowns, which added to his already record-breaking numbers.

Eastern Kentucky tight end Joeseph Sewell (80) is tackled by Gardner-Webb defensive back Josiah Wright during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.
Eastern Kentucky tight end Joeseph Sewell (80) is tackled by Gardner-Webb defensive back Josiah Wright during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.

McKinney — who is a finalist for the national offensive player of the year award in FCS — set EKU single-season records this season for completions (315), attempts (459), passing yards (3,956) and passing touchdowns (33).

Additionally, McKinney is already EKU’s career leader in pass completions, pass attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total offense, with another college season still to come.

“A lot of it is just the coaching staff, whether it’s play-calling or its putting the right people around me,” McKinney said of EKU’s offensive success this season. “We had a ton of playmakers this year … . I can throw a little 5-yard slant and they can take it 80 yards for a touchdown. That’s what I attribute most of it to.”

Gardner-Webb and Eastern Kentucky combined for 1,021 yards of total offense.

Eastern Kentucky quarterback Parker McKinney (18) looks to pass the ball against Gardner-Webb during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.
Eastern Kentucky quarterback Parker McKinney (18) looks to pass the ball against Gardner-Webb during Saturday’s FCS playoffs game in Richmond.

Foundational pieces in place for EKU

Wells’ first three seasons as EKU head coach have each come with distinct and significant challenges.

Wells was hired in December 2019, which meant his first season as head coach was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last season was EKU’s first after an offseason move from the Ohio Valley Conference to the ASUN Conference.

This season, EKU defeated an FBS opponent for the first time in 16 games while Garry McPeek served as acting head coach, before Wells returned following his heart attack to help guide EKU to the ASUN-WAC automatic qualifier berth into the FCS playoffs as co-champions of the ASUN and the top team in the ASUN-WAC power ranking.

This marked a share of EKU’s first conference championship since 2011, with Wells being named the ASUN Coach of the Year for the second straight season.

“I think that this team had so much potential, and some of that potential really showed,” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Shane Burks II, a former Bryan Station High School player. “I think that we’re moving in the right direction and I’m happy to be part of the foundation for reestablishing the success of EKU football.”

This represents a clear progression for EKU under Wells, as the program aims to return to the historic heights reached with Division I-AA national championships in 1979 and 1982.

“We had a good year. We met some goals, did some things that we needed to do to help bring this program back to where we needed it to be, but we need to continue to climb,” Wells said. “I think the program took some strides, but tonight we took a step back and we’ve got to continue to understand where we are and who we are and work hard in recruiting to make it better.”

Where does Wells think this next step needs to come for EKU?

“I think the overall expectation of the program. To be an elite program, you’ve got to think that way, you’ve got to recruit that way, you’ve got to coach that way, you’ve got to have that mindset day in and day out,” Wells said. “I think that that’s something we’ve got to continue to climb. … To be a nationally top four, five, six team, we’ve got to take the next step in recruiting and in development.”