CHARLESTON--In a season of disappointments for Eastern Illinois, Saturday's Ohio Valley Conference opening 41-40 loss to Tennessee State is easily the biggest.
The Panthers let a 24-3 lead disappear and saw their chances for victory evaporate when a field goal attempt was blocked in the game's final minutes.
"Obviously we thought we had it," linebacker Joe Caputo said. "For the first time [this year] we were blowing somebody out . . . but this one got away from us. 41 points, we had a lead, got to hold 'em. That's on us."
Yet, tight end James Sheehan said the offense shouldered some of the blame.
"We weren't able to establish the run," said Sheehan, who caught a career-best eight balls for 84 yards.
The game really turned with 30 seconds remaining in the first half. Leading 24-6, EIU took possession following a Tennessee State punt. Rather than taking a knee and running out the clock, quarterback Jonathan Brantley dropped back to pass. Alabama transfer Mekhi Brown sacked Brantley and knocked the ball loose. Teammate Dante Ferguson recovered at the EIU 18.
"That was called by me," EIU head coach Kim Dameron said of the play, "It's my fault. I got greedy. I wanted to take one shot and then run the clock out. Had no idea we'd get hit in the back with a fumble. It's on me. I called it. I told them to throw it deep . . . trying to be aggressive right before half bit me in the butt. And to be honest with you, I know better."
On the very next snap, Tennessee State scored using a trick play when Treon Harris fired a touchdown pass to Chris Rowland. Antonio Zito's extra point cut EIU's lead to 24-13 and seemingly stole the momentum.
Caputo, playing linebacker, said, "The receiver was their quarterback last year, and we game-planned that all week. We knew that play was coming; we knew they were going to try it. We bit too hard on the run and they just threw it behind us . . . The score before half took some out of us."
Even more came out of Eastern's balloon when TSU engineered a seven-play, 47-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. DeMarco Corbin scored on a two-yard run. Though the Tigers failed on a two-point conversion attempt, the once 21-point EIU lead stood at just five.
From there, the teams sparred back and forth. Eastern held a 34-26 lead early in the fourth quarter on a career-long 48-yard field goal by senior Nick Bruno. Yet, the Tigers rallied with a field goal and a 49-yard touchdown pass from Demry Croft to DeVon Johnson.
"We weren't able to sustain drives in the second half; we had a hard time staying on the field," Dameron said. "I'm disappointed with the fact that we let them throw the ball over our heads late in the game. I'm disappointed with the fact that their big offensive line started leaning on us at the end. We weren't able to get them slowed down running the ball. When they can run, they can throw it. I felt like we wore out in the second half."
Eastern did manage to rally. Backup quarterback Harry Woodbery replaced Brantley and found Alexander Hollins for a 72-yard touchdown on a third-and-eight play with 6:27 left in the game. EIU failed on its two-point conversion but held a 40-35 lead.
Yet again, Tennessee State rallied. The Tigers marched 65 yards in 10 plays and scored what proved to be the game-deciding touchdown when Earl Harrison barreled into the end zone on a four-yard run with 3:06 remaining. As if one cue, a two-point conversion failed.
Field goal failure
Woodbery and the Panther offense moved the ball to the Tennessee State 33 where it faced a third-and-one. However, reserve running back Darshon McCullough was wrapped up for a two-yard loss by Brown and Ferguson. Following a timeout, Dameron sent Bruno out to attempt a 47-yard field goal with 1:39 left. However, Tiger defender Justin Culpepper blocked the kick.
"I thought it was a good snap, a good hold, a good kick," said Sheehan, who in addition to playing tight serves as EIU's holder. "They just got up there. When I turned, I heard the kick. I tried to keep my head down. I heard the thud. I saw three [TSU] guys way up in the air."
Caputo added, "It was a 47-yard try, so the ball is coming low anyway."
5 Key Stats that Stood Out
2 – Two straight years the rivals' game was decided by a single point (last year Eastern prevailed 18-17)
12 – The game-high number of tackles by EIU linebacker Dytarious Johnson (who also had 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble)
19 – More offensive plays run by Tennessee State (88-69)
544 – Total yards surrendered by the Eastern defense
2011 – The last time that Tennessee State had beaten Eastern
What this means
While Tennessee State is 2-0 (1-0 in OVC), Eastern falls to 0-4 (0-1) on the season.
"If you play sports you have to hate losing more than you enjoy winning. This one really, really hurts." Sheehan said.
EIU continues conference play when it travels to Tennessee Tech Saturday. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.