CONWAY — Coastal Carolina coach Joe Moglia had said earlier in the week that he didnt think his football team could fix all of its defensive concerns in seven days, and unfortunately for the Chanticleers, he was right.
No. 20-ranked Eastern Kentucky rumbled for 217 rushing yards, took advantage of holes in the Chants secondary and came through with clutch third-down and fourth-down conversions on the way to a 35-17 win over Coastal on Saturday night before an announced crowd of 9,316 at Brooks Stadium.
Senior Matt Denham led the way for the Colonels (2-1) with a game-high 121 rushing yards as the visitors dealt the Chants (2-1) their first loss of the season and first under Moglia, who will have plenty to address in practice with the defense once again this week.
I tip my hat to them guys, CCU senior defensive tackle Johnny Hartsfield said. They came out and they played their game, they stuck to their game plan, they ran the ball hard. But I like to think if we would have played our defense and be the defense we can be, maybe the outcome would have been a little different or a better fight.
Instead, the woes from a week ago seemed to carry over into this one. One week after yielding 19 fourth-quarter points and three overtime touchdowns in a win at Furman, Coastal again showed cracks defensively and just couldnt slow the Colonels down long enough to recover after falling behind 21-7 at halftime.
Eastern Kentucky was 7-of-12 on third-down conversions, averaged 4.5 yards per carry over 48 attempts and its two quarterbacks gained 225 yards through the air on an efficient 13-of-18 passing.
In other words, the Chants just didnt have much answer for the Colonels offense.
From a defensive perspective, I think weve really got to be able to look at the film, Moglia said. [But] I think they kind of outmanned us.
Eastern Kentucky needed just six plays to score on the games opening possession as quarterback Jared McClain found Denham open in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
Coastal answered quickly on the ensuing possession to tie the game as junior Niccolo Mastromatteo scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from senior Aramis Hillary, and the teams then traded interceptions and punts before the Colonels found their groove offensively.
Senior T.J. Pryor, Eastern Kentuckys usual starting quarterback who has been hampered by injuries, entered the game early in the second quarter and promptly led the Colonels on a 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive while punching it in from 1 yard out on fourth down.
Then came a pivotal swing in the game.
Facing fourth-and-10 from the EKU 27, Coastal elected to try a fake field goal as sophomore holder Austin Cain connected on a pass to senior tight end Dominique Whiteside. But the Chants came up just short of the first down, and two plays later Eastern Kentucky was back in the end zone on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Pryor to Tyrone Goard. Goard got a good 10 yards behind senior cornerback Tre Henderson on the play and was wide open to haul in the fifth-longest pass play ever against the Chants as the Colonels pushed their lead to 21-7 late in the second quarter.
Henderson, who missed the last game with a hamstring injury, had made a key red zone interception in the first quarter at the CCU 8 and admitted afterward to being a little too aggressive as he got beat for the long touchdown.
They were throwing hitches on us all night, so I was jumping routes, he said. I ended up jumping a route, and it was an out-and-up so that alls on me.
The Coastal offense responded with a big drive to open the second half, going 62 yards in nine plays despite losing Hillary on the first play of the series. Redshirt-freshman Alex Ross keyed the drive, hitting Mastromatteo for a short third-down conversion and finding junior Matt Hazel in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown to make it a 21-14 game.
Hillary would return the next series, but the Chants simply could not stop the Colonels, who followed with another touchdown of their own as Pryor scrambled for a 21-yard gain on third-and-long to get down to the CCU 6 and Denham followed with a touchdown scamper to push the lead up to 28-14. After a 45-yard field goal by Coastal sophomore Alex Catron at the end of the third quarter, Eastern Kentucky scored yet again with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard run by Deshaun Sands.
We talked about this in the preseason, we talked about it in the spring time, Moglia said. We think weve got a solid [defensive] unit, but we dont have much depth. So especially when youre playing early in the season, and there is still a reasonable degree of heat and humidity, youve got to be able to rotate your guys. ...
Some of them are young and theyre going to need experience, and the experience over time I think will wind up helping us. But we need to make sure we do a better job both in terms of the first unit and as far as the depth goes.
Mastromatteo led the offensive charge, meanwhile, with 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. He tied a program single-game record for receptions. But a loss is a loss, and he didnt have much to say about that afterward.
Its a learning experience, he said of the defeat. Well go through film tomorrow, but we [have] a general feeling about what the sense was like on the field and what we need to do to change. I guess this sounds a little messed up, but maybe you have to lose to get better.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.