Under the Lights: Golden Eagles upset No. 12 EKU

TTU free safety Marty Jones soars into the end zone over EKU defensive back Kiante Northington. Photo by Jim Dillon.

Eastern Kentucky University led Tennessee Tech 31-10 as the clock read 12 minutes, 51 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter last Saturday night at Tucker Stadium. By most accounts, the game is over. The fat lady has sung and the unhatched chickens have already been counted for EKU. The game is seemingly theirs for the taking. Furthermore, the Colonels have all but sealed their seventh-straight win, moving one game closer to a potentially perfect, undefeated season.

The Golden Eagles had other plans, however. Not going down without a fight, the home team rallied and scored 29 unanswered points off four forced turnovers and upset the No. 12 team in the nation 39-31.

In similar fashion to the Oct. 4 thrilling win at home over Murray State, the Golden Eagles made a late fourth-quarter push to come from behind and beat a team that had, for the most part, had their way with Tech’s defense through the first three quarters.

During the postgame news conference, head coach Watson Brown expressed that while the defense struggled throughout the majority of the game, his team hung in there and made plays at opportune times to steal an upset win from the highest ranked offense and defense in the OVC.

“The kids that can make plays on this team made plays,” said Brown. “I thought that was the big difference for us tonight.”
While some would call it a miracle, Brown attributes perseverance as the source behind his team’s comeback win.
“Ever since I’ve been here (knocks on wood), I haven’t seen ‘em quit. They just don’t. They fight to the bitter end no matter what the score is,” said Brown. “We’re not real pretty at times, but we just don’t quit.”

The 29 unanswered point turnaround for the Golden Eagles began after EKU defensive back Stanley Absanon blocked a 32-yard field goal and returned it 75 yards for a Colonel touchdown.

During that play is when Brown admitted it would have been the time to hang it up, roll over and accept defeat.

“That would have been easy, as I tell our kids all the time, to throw in the white flag,” said Brown. “We just don’t have a white flag.”

On the ensuing drive, Tech quarterback Darian Stone found receiver Brock McCoin on three catches for 36 yards including a 14-yard touchdown, a career first for the redshirt freshman from Livingston, Tenn. McCoin, who finished Saturday’s game with 11 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns, became the team’s first receiver to haul in over 100 receiving yards in a game this season.

The touchdown proved to be the initial spark that lit the team’s fire of unanswered scoring. What kept the fire alive, however, were key stops and turnovers made by a defense that appeared to be absent in the first three quarters.

During the fourth quarter alone, EKU quarterback Jared McClain forked over two fumbles and an interception with quarterback Bennie Coney giving up a pick of his own.

The Golden Eagles responded to the EKU turnovers with touchdowns, two of which were in the skies on a 3-yard catch by Cody Matthews and another Brock McCoin touchdown, this time for 27 yards to put the score at 31-30, EKU with three minutes, 41 seconds remaining in the game.

During the routine extra point kick to tie the game, longtime placeholder and 6-year senior free safety Marty Jones botched the snap. Jones quickly recovered the drop, rolled out left and dove into the end zone, flipping over EKU defensive back Kiante Northington for the 2-point conversion and a 32-31 lead. It was the first Tech lead of the night.

 Jones, who says he’s never botched a snap since his place kick holding career began in junior high, took full responsibility for the mishap.

“I’ve never botched a snap in a game in my life,” said Jones. “It handcuffed me a little bit and I just dropped it. I picked it up and I just started rolling out.”

Jones said kicker John Arnold told him he was “throwing up blocks” for the free safety as Jones dashed for the end zone on the 2-point conversion try, but said he’d have to see the film to believe the kicker. Watson Brown jokingly added “it wasn’t pretty.”

On the following drive, Tech’s defense forced a three and out on an EKU offense that had previously converted 18 first downs. Tech running back Ladarius Vanlier fair caught the punt at his team’s own 37-yard line, and on the following play, took the ball, cut outside to the left and ran untouched along the sidelines for 63 yards for a Golden Eagle touchdown. The one-play, 63-yard scoring drive took all of 10 seconds and resulted in the game’s final score.

With only two minutes remaining, EKU needed to drive the ball 75 yards for a touchdown and covert a 2-point conversion if they had any hopes of surviving the upset.

The Golden Eagles had other plans. Marty Jones, who gave his team the first lead of the night after what could have been a costly mistake, intercepted EKU quarterback Bennie Coney with just over a minute left to play. The Golden Eagles, however, came up empty on their effort to run the clock out and were forced to punt.

The final dagger to the Colonels was then delivered as Jones intercepted his fourth pass of the night, this time from EKU quarterback Jared McClain. The four-interception performance broke a Tech record while tying an OVC record for the most in a game.

Although happy with his individual performance, Jones credits his opportunities to his team’s offense for forcing their opponent to throw the ball and make a comeback of their own.

“You get into that situation [on defense] because the offense kept us in the game up to that point,” said Jones. “When they have to throw, that puts us where we can really pin our ears back and rush the quarterback. It really makes my job a lot easier.”

Jones left Tucker Stadium Saturday night with video game-type numbers grabbing four interceptions and 12 tackles. He also took home a handful of accolades for his career performance. Jones was named the OVC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in his career. The College Football Performance Awards and the Sports Network also recognized him nationally as the FCS National Defensive Performer of the Week.

A pair of other Golden Eagles received honors for Saturday night’s win as well. Senior quarterback Darian Stone was named OVC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lead his offense over EKU.

Junior running back Ladarius Vanlier received several awards for his OVC season-best 264 all-purpose yards as he was named the OVC Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time this season. Like teammate Marty Jones, Vanlier was also recognized by the College Football Performance Awards. Vanlier was named the FCS National Punt Returner of the Week by CFPA for the second time this season for his 79-yard punt return for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter against EKU. It was his second punt return for a touchdown in 2014.

“When I saw the ball in the air I just took the opportunity,” said Vanlier. “The punt return team made great blocks. I looked for a crease and when I got it, I just ran to the end zone.”

Although Brown has stated before that his all-purpose, all-OVC running back has come a long way from dropping kicks last season, he says Vanlier has been the best running back for Tech this season.

“The thing I like about him is he’s not very big, but he doesn’t play small,” said Brown. “When he gets loose, good luck, because you’re not going to catch him. That ain’t gon’ happen.”

Saturday night’s home win was the first for Brown against EKU at Tucker Stadium since his arrival in 2007. It was also the first “Blackout” win for Tech since the tradition began in 2012. The “Blackout” promotion is to encourage fans to wear black clothing while the Golden Eagles wear their all-black uniforms.

The Golden Eagles are now 3-4 overall, 2-2 in OVC play and rank fifth in the conference. They move forward from last week’s upset win over the No. 12 FCS team to face No. 6 Jacksonville State.

The Gamecocks will be the fifth nationally ranked opponent Tech has faced this season. While Brown admits his team’s schedule has been tough to say the least, he also says he’d be surprised if his team traveled to Jacksonville and didn’t put up a similar fight as Saturday night.

“I don’t know if anybody’s had a schedule like this. It’s just been brutal,” said Brown. “The biggest positive to me is that through this tough schedule, these kids don’t quit. I would be shocked if we go to Jacksonville State and lay an egg. I think we’ll play our hearts out.”