FOOTBALL: Bluegrass rivalry returns to Hill after two years off

Danny Schoenbaechler

After stomping on inferior opponents in its first two games, Western will start its real season Saturday.

Not only are the Hilltoppers squaring off with a tough I-AA foe, but they will renew an in-state rivalry when Eastern Kentucky comes to town for the first time since 2000.

The rivalry took a hiatus when Western left the Ohio Valley Conference for the Gateway Conference that season. Now the two will line up Saturday in the renewal of a once heated series.

“It’s all about the feeling in the community,” coach David Elson said. “People are really excited about this game.”

The Western athletics department has made a huge push for a sellout, and Elson thinks it will happen.

“We need to get the stands full, and I think we will,” he said.

The last time Smith Stadium sold out was when the Toppers played Eastern in 1996.

The Western ticket office has already sold 12,300 tickets, which includes Eastern’s allotment of tickets.

Director of media relations Brian Fremund said around 4,000 students attended the West Virginia Tech game. A similar student turnout and a decent turnout of walk-up ticket buyers should push the attendance close to Smith Stadium’s 17,500 capacity.

The two teams have taken on a bit of a facelift since they last saw each other. Both schools have first-year head coaches after Jack Harbaugh and Roy Kidd either resigned or retired. Danny Hope has come into Richmond and turned the traditional smash mouth Colonels into a spread out passing team.

“They are supposed to be a passing team and that’s exciting for us,” senior free safety Antonio Veals said. “We’re going to be back there licking our chops.”

Hope could not be reachd for comment.

The Colonel offense is ranked No. 10 in the nation in total offense and is led by quarterback Matt Guise.

Eastern’s top receiver Andre Ralston is ranked in the top 10 in the country in receptions, yards and all-purpose yards per game.

Veals is one of the few Toppers who have played against Eastern. However, he was a wide receiver in the previous meeting.

He said the team does view this as a rivalry game – even though few players have played the Colonels – but won’t change any of their preparations because of it.

“It’s as big a game as any other,” Veals said. “We’re going to come out and play hard.”

The Toppers are coming off a bye week and have I-A Auburn waiting on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean they are overlooking Eastern.

“We’ve stayed really focused this week,” Veals said. “It’s been a really good week of practice.”

Eastern is coming off a 42-21 loss to I-A Central Michigan.

However, there is a disagreement with the all-time series record. Western’s records show it leads 43-33-3 including a 6-3 win in 2000.

But Eastern’s records show 42-33-3.

While the Colonel passing attack has been successful, the Hilltoppers running game and improved passing game have motored them into the No. 1 national ranking in scoring offense. Western has exploded to 59 points per game, but all of those points came against either a Division II or NAIA opponent.

Western will come into the game fairly healthy but will be without starting outside linebacker Deonte Smith (hamstring) for a second consecutive week.

Freshman linebacker Sam Stinson, who converted from quarterback, will earn a second straight start, but sophomore transfer Brandon Smith will get some time, according to Elson.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]