Panthers bring revived running game into 1st-place OVC showdown

Panthers bring revived running game into 1st-place OVC showdown
Isaiah Johnson gained 107 yards to lead the Eastern offense Saturday. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

Two weeks ago, Eastern Illinois junior running back Isaiah Johnson was at a low point.

He had carried the ball 10 times against Tennessee Tech in a 24-23 victory.

The result of his efforts? Minus-1 yard.

While Johnson couldn’t believe his poor production, the players in front of him maintained their belief.

Isaiah Johnson

Isaiah Johnson

“I didn’t have such a good game, but (the O-line) just kept telling me, ‘You’ll be good,’” Johnson said. “They kept putting their trust in me. That meant a lot for me. Those guys mean everything to me.  They’re my favorite players on the team.

“The TTU game was my worst game, and I ended up bouncing back with my best game of the season,” he said.

At his finest

Johnson, who joined the team this fall as a transfer from California’s Moorpark College, exploded last week with a career-best 237 rushing yards as the Panthers beat Murray State, 27-24, in double overtime.

Johnson and the starting offensive line of right tackle Aaron Miller, right guard Aaron Callaway, center Louis Vailopa, left guard Austin Askin and left tackle Grant Branch helped the running game bulldoze its way to 351 total rushing yards against Murray.

“The O-line was blocking their tails off,” Johnson said. “They were able to get me to the secondary. When I can get to the secondary, that’s when I feel like I’m at my best.”

Stiff test ahead

With the Panthers (5-2) off to a 4-0 start and in first place in the Ohio Valley Conference, they face the season’s toughest test yet.

On Saturday for homecoming in Charleston, Ill., EIU hosts longtime OVC heavyweight Jacksonville State (5-1, 3-0), which is ranked No. 3 in this week’s FCS national polls. The winner will take over sole possession of the conference lead.

“Most people don’t schedule a team of that caliber for their homecoming,” EIU head coach Kim Dameron joked. “There’s not anybody on their team that’s not athletic and physical.”

Trio of QBs

Eastern has won four games in a row despite playing three different quarterbacks.

Senior Mitch Kimble started the season, then suffered a shoulder/back injury against Illinois State and hasn’t played since.

Redshirt freshman Scotty Gilkey followed and used a run-first approach to lead EIU to its strong conference start.

This week, junior Bud Martin will make his second career start.

“All three are kind of different,” Dameron said. “In contrast to Jacksonville State, they play two quarterbacks but they run the same offense. They have similar skill sets.”

Three of a different kind

Kimble thrived by using a precise passing game, while Martin is known for delivering impressive deep balls. Gilkey, whom Dameron says has “a knee issue,” is a 235-pounder who added a unique dimension to the run game.

“It’s been a juggling act, and it hasn’t been easy,” Dameron said. “Our offensive staff and offensive players adjusted to it. We tried to pick out what each guy could do best ... and then tried to give them the plays for us to be successful.”

Amid all the changes behind center, Johnson said all three players have been impressive.

“They’re all some great leaders,” he said. “That what I love about them. Any one of them can come in and get us a win.”

The game

Jacksonville State (5-1 overall, 3-0 OVC) at Eastern Illinois (5-2, 4-0), 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at Charleston, Ill. (Game will air on ESPN3.com and WEIU.net)

Three key matchups

  1. RB Roc Thomas vs. EIU run defense: Thomas, a senior who transferred from Auburn, is a game changer. He averages 5.8 yards a carry and has six TDs and 92.2 yards a game. Eastern ranks sixth in the nine-team OVC against the run.
  2. EIU vs. Turnovers: The Panthers have forced the second-most turnovers in the conference this season with 15. They will need to continue that trend and avoid throwing interceptions, which its QBs have done eight times.
  3. Third-down supremacy: JSU’s offense leads the conference on third down at 45.9 percent. Opposing teams against EIU, however, are converting only 31.5 percent of the time.

Key stat

Redshirt freshman cornerback Mark Williams has a team-high three interceptions for the Panthers this season. The last redshirt freshman to lead EIU in interceptions for a season was Rashad Haynes (five) in 2007.

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