Early-season stumbles drive Panthers to find fixes

Early-season stumbles drive Panthers to find fixes
EIU's defense has allowed nearly 50 points a game during an 0-4 start. (Photo by Sandy King/EIUPanthers.com)

In three words, Eastern Illinois junior tight end James Sheehan summed up the entire locker room’s feelings after Saturday’s 41-40 loss to Tennessee State.

“It just stings,” said Sheehan, who had a career-high eight catches and 84 yards in a game the Panthers led by three touchdowns.

The loss dropped EIU to 0-4 for its worst start since 2010, when the team finished 2-9 after losing its first eight games.

“The team’s definitely got to come together right now,” senior linebacker Joe Caputo said. “We can either split or come together. If we split, it could be a really long season. We’ve got seven games left. We can be 7-1 in conference. That has to be our mindset going forward.”

Defense has been a major issue for the Panthers, who rank last or second-to-last in seven statistical categories in the OVC. Nationally, Eastern ranks 119th out of 124 FCS teams in points allowed (49.8 per game).

“Obviously, we’ve got to fix some things,” said Caputo, who has a team-high 31 tackles. “Tackling is an issue for everybody, myself included. We were up 24-3. We can’t give up that lead.”

Facing another 0-4 team is an opportunity for the Panthers to start a new streak.

“Both of us are in a very similar situation, looking for our first win after playing a very difficult schedule,” said EIU head coach Kim Dameron, who credited his team for coming back to work Sunday with a positive attitude.

“This is a family,” Dameron said. “We stick together in tough times as well as in good times. Our kids are resilient, and our kids will bounce back. I know we’re 0-4, but there’s not another football team in the country I’d rather be a part of than this one.”

Three key matchups

  1. EIU Air Raid vs. TTU defense: The Panthers have scored at least 40 points two weeks in a row. They face a Tech defense that is last in the OVC in points (51) and yards (543) allowed per game. Junior QB Johnathan Brantley is completing 67 percent of his passes and has thrown seven TDs and no interceptions.
  2. EIU vs. turnovers: The Panthers rank eighth in the nine-team OVC with a minus-8 turnover margin. Avoiding turnovers will allow the Panthers’ high-octane offense to stay on the field.
  3. TTU QB Bailey Fisher vs. EIU defense: Fisher, a true freshman, is Tech’s leading passer and rusher, producing more than 160 yards a game. EIU ranks last in the OVC in pass defense.

Game details

Eastern Illinois (0-4) at Tennessee Tech (0-4), 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29. Game will air on ESPN-Plus.

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