Conference play offers struggling Eastern a fresh start

Conference play offers struggling Eastern a fresh start
Eastern linebacker Joe Caputo makes a tackle in last season's game at Tennessee State. (photo courtesy of

Whether you haven't played well or haven't played for an unusual three weeks, you're more than ready to get back out on the football field.

Eastern Illinois (0-3) hosts Tennessee State (1-0) to open the Ohio Valley Conference portion of the season Saturday afternoon in Charleston.

Head coach Kim Dameron's Panthers have given up 158 points in three nonconference games to begin the year. Eastern made strides on the offensive side of the ball in last week's 55-41 loss to Indiana State.

"Offensively we were much improved," Dameron said.

Quarterback Johnathan Brantley was named the OVC Newcomer of the Week, while wide receiver/kick returner Matt Reyna was named the Special Teams Player of the Week by the league.

Brantley, a transfer from Tulane, completed 37-of-49 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns; Reyna returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and finished Saturday's game with 160 kickoff return yards on four attempts (40.0 ypr).

Jonathan Brantley

Jonathan Brantley

"Defensively, kind of the same song . . . poor execution, poor physicality, a lot of missed tackles. We looked like we were just kind of walking around out there."

"I can't go out and sign Khalil Mack, that's not going to happen. We've got to be better tacklers, number one."

Meanwhile, TSU head coach Rod Reed's Tigers have only played once this season. First, TSU's Sept. 8 game was canceled due to lightning in the Memphis area. Last weekend's scheduled game at Hampton was canceled because of the threat of Hurricane Florence.

"It's been frustrating, but we've used it to heal up," Reed said, adding that the past two weeks have almost become an extended fall camp for his team.

Both coaches expect a closely fought game Saturday at O'Brien Field. Although Eastern has won six straight games against Tennessee State, the margin of victory in the last three games has been less than a field goal. Two of the last three games have gone to overtime.

"When you lose games like we have the last three years, you've got that taste in your mouth about a team," Reed said, "it's going to amp it up."

Dameron said, "Every game in conference is a rivalry game . . . This year it's our first conference game so that makes it even bigger."

Three key matchups

  1. TSU's two-quarterback offense vs. EIU defense:  Quarterback Demry Croft, a transfer from Minnesota, played in eight series in the Tigers' win over Bethune-Cookman while Michael Hughes played in five. For the Panthers to win, they have to stop both. 
  2. Special teams:  In a series in which three of the last eight games have be decided in overtime, the slightest mistake on special teams may make the difference.
  3.  Intensity:  There's no love lost between these two teams. Many of the players know each other from high school days. Barbs went back-and-forth via social media this past summer. So, it's put up or shut up come Saturday.

Game details

Eastern Illinois (0-3) hosts Tennessee State (1-0), 2 p.m. Saturday at O'Brien Field in Charleston. The game is on ESPN+.

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