Nov. 25, 2008

By Nate Crossman
Special to

As Eastern Kentucky head coach Dean Hood made the 35-minute drive home Sunday night from Richmond to Lexington, a few hours after learning his team would travel to Richmond for the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championship tournament, he sounded serene.

Hood, who’s in his first year as head coach of the Colonels after serving as a Wake Forest assistant for seven years, claimed to know little about the Spiders, who Eastern Kentucky played last year in the postseason and who also have a first-year head coach in former Virginia assistant Mike London. But he added that he and his coaching staff would learn plenty on Monday, pouring over film.

His only area of concern was the prospect of losing cellular phone reception on the bridge spanning the Kentucky River.

Perhaps Hood was so at peace because he knew how fortunate his team was to be one of the 16 teams in the FCS playoffs.

The Colonels weren’t the last team invited to the tournament – that honor probably went to Maine, one of four Colonial Athletic Association teams to earn at-large bids. But they certainly were one of the last ones to make it, beating Tennessee-Martin 33-31 late Saturday afternoon to win the Ohio Valley Conference title and its automatic bid. Eastern Kentucky led 24-6 at halftime, but had to withstand a furious comeback by the Skyhawks. Colonels senior Brandon Gathof blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt on the game’s final play. The blocked field goal secured Eastern Kentucky’s seventh win in a row after starting the season 1-3, including an OVC-opening loss to Tennessee State.

“To be able to decide the conference championship on the field, that was a blessing,” Hood said. “This season, we’ve had to overcome some adversity, so we felt very fortunate. And the way that game ended; you can’t have it any more dramatic.”

Part of the adversity was the 1-3 start, which included losses to Cincinnati and Western Kentucky, a win over Morehouse, and loss to Tennessee State. Had Tennessee State not lost to Jacksonville State two weeks ago, it would have earned the OVC’s automatic bid because it also beat Tennessee-Martin.

Part of the adversity was playing in the shadow of Eastern Kentucky’s considerable legacy, which was forged mostly by former head coach Roy Kidd, for whom Hood coached for before going to Wake Forest. This season’s tournament appearance is the Colonels’ NCAA-record 19th, which includes two national championships.

And part of the adversity was personal. Over the summer, Hood’s 5-year-old daughter Jada was diagnosed with a kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. Although her health’s improved since her diagnosis, Jada’s health situation has taken a toll on Hood and his family.

But through it all, Hood persevered, and has his team where everybody expected it to be.

Hood said that doesn’t feel different as a head coach then he did as an assistant. But he does feel differently about preparing for a playoff instead of a bowl game, which he did last year.

“(In the FBS) the only bowl that matters is the national championship game,” Hood said. “You prepare and you want to the kids to be prepared, but it’s a reward. It’s a lot more relaxed, because the national championship game is the only game that matters.

“(In the FCS) every playoff game matters.”

Playoff Musings

Liberty head coach Dan Rocco “yelled and stomped out of the donor room at Liberty’s football operations center” according to the Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance, while the Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove thanked the football gods according to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. That was how close the two teams competing for the final spot in the FCS playoffs were, with the Bears receiving the nod over the Flames. Liberty thought it had a chance because of its win Saturday over Elon, and Maine’s loss to New Hampshire. But the selection committee apparently valued Maine’s strength of schedule, and punished Liberty’s loss to Presbyterian…Because of an error by ESPNU, Weber State thought it was hosting Saturday’s game against Cal Poly, despite losing its regular-season finale to Eastern Washington. But an hour later they found out they’d have to travel to San Luis Obispo, Calif. “Now it’s a whole different ball game,” Weber State coach Ron McBride told the Salt Lake City (Utah) Tribune. “That’s a blow, to think you have a home game and you don’t. But, you gotta do what you have to do, that’s the bottom line.”… Villanova will be considered the favorite in its first-round matchup against Colgate. But the Raiders received good news in their 28-27 Patriot League-clinching win over Holy Cross in the form of 82 yards on 22 carries by running back Jordan Scott. Scott, a preseason Walter Payton Award favorite, has been hampered the past several weeks with an ankle injury, but appears to be rounding into form. He also has a running mate now in freshman Nate Eachus, who rushed for 118 yards on 22 carries against the Crusaders.

Payton Tracker

The Payton Award ballot became more crowded this week, as four names were added to it, bringing the total to 16 nominees. Harvard quarterback Chris Pizzotti, who’s considered an NFL prospect, led his team to its second consecutive Ivy League title, throwing for 2,490 yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games. South Carolina State running back William Ford led his team to its first MEAC title since 1994, and has rushed for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Southern Illinois running back Larry Warner is only 5-feet, 5-inches tall, but he’s one of the most dynamic offensive players in the FCS. He ranks third in kick-off returns, 24th in punt returns, and 25th in rushing with 1,172 yards. He’s fourth among all-purpose runners, with 184 yards per game. Finally, San Diego receiver John Matthews leads the FCS in receiving yards per game with 134, total receiving yards with 1,478, and receiving touchdowns with 21.

All four, however, will be hard pressed to pass any of the top four contenders.

James Madison quarterback Rodney Landers had a typical day in his team’s 58-27 win over Towson, rushing for 117 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for 86 yards and a touchdown. Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown, however, didn’t have a typical performance in his team’s 47-30 win over McNeese State. Brown threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns to break UCA’s single-season records for passing yards (3,206) and passing touchdowns (31), along with the Arkansas state record for passing touchdowns in a career (100). But he also led Central Arkansas in rushing for the first time in his career, carrying the ball seven times for 71 yards and his first two rushing touchdowns of the season. Cal Poly receiver Ramses Barden proved once again he can perform against any competition, catching six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in his team’s 36-35 overtime loss to Wisconsin. In two games against FBS opponents this season, Barden has 13 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards was available to play in his team’s 35-10 win over Western Carolina, but didn’t because of a hip injury suffered against Elon.

Extra Points

Harvard and Brown made sure the Ivy League wouldn’t have to carve up its championship trophy four ways for the first time in its history, as both won their games to forge a tie for first. Harvard shut out Yale 10-0 to become the first team since 1983 to repeat as champs, while Brown beat Columbia 41-10 to earn its third Ivy title in the last 10 years. The Bears’ senior class became the first in the program’s history to earn two league championships. Had Harvard and Brown lost, they would have opened the door for Yale and Penn to tie them for the title. Penn beat Cornell, 23-6…Twenty coaches have been nominated for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, led by Appalachian State’s Jerry Moore and James Madison’s Mickey Matthews…Central Arkansas defensive end Larry Hart and Appalachian State free safety Mark LeGree have been named to the 16-player Buck Buchanan Award watch list…Iona announced last week that it is discontinuing its football program, effective immediately. School officials cited a “lack of equitable opponents in Division I FCS football” as the main factor. The Gaels went 3-8 as an independent this season.