Prior to Saturday’s Homecoming game with Tennessee-Martin, Eastern Illinois head coach Kim Dameron advised his Panthers to honor the memory of Bob Spoo by playing the way his teams did—hard and with passion.
Dameron’s Panthers—wearing helmet stickers to honor Spoo, who coached at EIU for 25 seasons and passed away Monday in Rockford—responded by grinding out a 24-21 overtime win in the Ohio Valley Conference game.
The win echoed last season when EIU took all six of its wins by 15 total points with no victory greater than three points.
The Panthers improved to 2-6 overall and 2-3 in the OVC. UTM dropped to 1-6 overall, 1-3 in the conference.
Statistically speaking, it’s hard to believe Eastern won. UTM amassed 204 more total yards than the Panthers, 405-204. The Skyhawks dominated time of possession, 41:13-18:47. UTM ourushed Eastern 182-27. The Panthers were a paltry 3-of-14 on third down.
Yet, EIU did win the game.
A big reason for that was an improved defensive effort.
“I thought after last week we had made some strides defensively. We won the turnover battle two to one,” Dameron told Justin Rust afterward. “This is now the third week in this system (3-3-5). I see us being able to stay in this going forward. It’s been a learning process for the kids but they bought in and did a really good job today.”
True freshman Bryce Dewberry—whose older brother Bradley was an EIU star and now is on the coaching staff—returned an interception 61 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter to give Eastern a 21-14 lead.
The Panthers appeared to have the game in hand, pinning UTM at the Skyhawks’ own 10-yard line with 2:09 remaining. However, UTM quarterback Joe Hudson—playing in place of Dresser Winn who was injured in the first quarter—converted a first-down pass on a fourth-and-8.
Hudson then drove UTM for a touchdown with 25 seconds left. Kicker Ryan Courtright’s extra point banged off the right upright and through to force overtime.
After UTM failed to gain a first down in overtime, Courtright’s 42-yard field goal attempt fell short after bouncing off the cross bar.
Eastern gained five yards and sent senior kicker Nick Bruno out for a 38-yard field goal attempt. Bruno, who missed all of last season with an injury, nailed the game-winning kick.
“I have one job to do and I have to do whatever I have to do to do that. It felt really good. When it came off my foot, I knew I made it,” Bruno told Rust. “There’s nothing like winning. That’s really all we want to do is finish out strong.
"Every win is a great win and it’s a great team win and it feels amazing and it’s Homecoming. It’s sweeter to walk away with a win in front of everyone.”
The field goal sent the Homecoming crowd, which included members of EIU’s 1978 national championship team, to its postgame celebrations.
5 Stats that mattered
5 — Punts inside the 20 by EIU’s Nick Bruno
5.5 — Tackles-for-loss by EIU linebacker Dytarious Johnson (Eastern had 10.5 as a team)
7 — Passes in 7 attempts for 48 yards by UTM starter Dresser Winn
13 — Touchdown catches this season by EIU receiver Alexander Hollins, which leads the FCS (Hollins had a 34-yard TD Saturday)
34 — Mile-per-hour winds with gusts up to 46 during the game
Eastern Illinois plays at Eastern Kentucky, Saturday, Oct. 27. Kickoff is at noon.