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Enigmatic EIU puts unbeaten league record on the line

Enigmatic EIU puts unbeaten league record on the line
Eastern Illinois puts its unbeaten Ohio Valley Conference record on the line Saturday against Murray State. (photo courtesy of Sandy King)

"They say cats have nine lives, if so, the Eastern Illinois Panthers might have used their fourth of the season as they beat Tennessee Tech 24-23 on Saturday night to remain unbeaten in the Ohio Valley Conference."

--lead paragraph of eiupanthers.com account of EIU's most recent win

The EIU Panthers are perhaps the most head-scratching enigma to this point of the Football Championship Subdivision season.

To date:

  • Third-year head coach Kim Dameron's Panthers have been outscored by 50 points.
  • Senior quarterback Mitch Kimble has missed the past three weeks with an undisclosed arm or elbow injury.
  • After senior place-kicker Nick Bruno pulled his hamstring during warmups prior to the season opener, EIU has used two different replacements--one a true freshman, the other a former junior college baseball player who hadn't kicked in a game since high school.
  • Opponents have a combined 12-20 record. Breaking that number down further, OVC foes played thus far are 5-12 overall.
  • The Panthers' four victories this year are by a combined ten points.
  • Eastern has won its three conference games by a combined seven points.
  • EIU has fumbled 15 times yet lost only four.
  • Using the Pythagorean projection developed by football stat website and publisher Football Outsiders, the Panthers' season win total works out to 4.458 if their present pace holds.

Also to date:

  • Eastern Illinois is 4-2 overall and 3-0 in league games, good for first place in the Ohio Valley Conference.

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One secret to success

“I don’t look at stats like total yards," EIU head coach Kim Dameron said.  "I look at takeaways; I look at third-down defense. I look at red zone defense. Right now there’s two things that we’re going pretty darn well. One is takeaways and the other is third-down defense.”

National perspective

"EIU's overall stats are a bit puzzling, but they're right with their opponents' numbers in the four wins," STATS FCS Senior Editor Craig Haley said. "The defense keeps them in enough games for the offense to score just enough. And with a fairly even OVC behind Jacksonville State, you have to win games in the fourth quarter and EIU is doing that."

HERO Sports FCS Senior Staff Writer Brian McLaughlin describes himself as "a half full kinda guy." His impressions of EIU?

"The fact that EIU is 3-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference is incredible because this league is three times better than it was a year ago," McLaughlin said. "It's way more competitive and even has upstarts like Austin Peay and Murray State taking chunks out of the usual frontrunners.

"EIU is playing great defense and is well versed at finding a way to win close games, and the Tennessee State win was impressive. That TSU team is legit and I think we'll be more and more aware of that as the season wears on."

McLaughlin added, "The stretch coming up will be interesting though."

That stretch includes Saturday's trip to Murray State. The Racers are fresh off a 13-10 upset of No. 25 Tennessee-Martin. Then, the Panthers return to O'Brien Field Oct. 21 for a Homecoming date with No. 4-ranked Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks (4-1, 2-0 OVC) recently won their 26th consecutive conference game, tying Eastern Kentucky's league record that ended in 1995, while also tying the Colonels and Appalachian State for the second-longest streak in FCS history.

Eastern finishes its season with road games at UT-Martin and Austin Peay sandwiching its home finale against Eastern Kentucky.

The game

Eastern Illinois (4-2 overall, 3-0 in OVC) at Murray State (2-4 overall, 1-1 in OVC), 3 p.m. Saturday at Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray, Ky. (Game will air on OVC Digital Network and WEIU.net)

Added incentive

"There's a little added pressure this week. Both my wife and Coach (Cary) Fowler's wife are both Murray State grads, and they both let us know that we better keep that horse in that trailer," EIU head coach Kim Dameron said of Murray State's mascot, which circles the track when the Racers score.

Three key matchups

  1. Turnovers:  Both teams have found success in winning the turnover battle that their offenses cashed in for points. Saturday's winner may well be determined by turnover margin coupled with points off those miscues.
  2. EIU QB combination vs. Murray State defense:  With redshirt senior Mitch Kimble still most likely sidelined for Saturday, look for the Panthers to play both redshirt freshman power runner Scotty Gilkey, Jr. and redshirt junior passing threat Bud Martin against the Racers. How Murray State responds will likely determine the outcome.
  3. Kicking:  With Nick Bruno out with his injury, EIU has used a combination of freshman Matt Severino and former scout team kicker Nick Wilson. The pair has combined to go 5-of-7 on field goal attempts but only one attempt was beyond 40 yards. Conversely, the duo is just 8-for-12 on extra points. Murray State's Gabriel Vincente has been impressive by going 8-for-9 on field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards. In addition, the junior is still a perfect on PATs this season, converting on all 12 attempts.

A year ago

Murray State converted six Eastern Illinois turnovers into 20 points as the Racers came from behind to upset No. 15 EIU, 40-38, during the Panthers homecoming game at O'Brien Field.

Key stat

EIU has committed four more penalties than its opponents. Murray State, meanwhile, has committed 26 fewer than its foes.

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