CHARLESTON--Illinois State had Eastern Illinois on the run most of Saturday's Mid-America Classic.
For the nationally ranked Redbirds, that meant running the ball 51 of 62 plays for 254 net yards. For the Panthers, it meant that quarterback Jonathan Brantley was on the run most of the day trying to avoid a fierce pass rush.
The end result was ISU defeating Eastern 21-3 in front of 6,119 fans to win the 108th bout between the longtime rivals.
“We got the lead and kept it. That was critical,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said afterward. “We’ve got the [traveling] trophy on the bus and we live to fight another day.”
The win moved ISU to 2-1, while Eastern is 0-3.
The Redbirds have won three straight in the series, three straight in Charleston and five of the last six versus EIU.
ISU leads the all-time series 57-42-9. The series dates back to 1901 and is the oldest FCS series in the state.
Here’s what we learned from the EIU's loss:
1. Eastern's youthful offensive line continues to have growing pains.
The good news is that Brantley gained 106 yards; the bad news is that the senior QB was sacked eight times and lost 57 yards.
"It was protection issues today," EIU head coach Adam Cushing said of his line that starts three freshmen and a redshirt sophomore. "We couldn't get ourselves in a rhythm."
The ISU pressure held Eastern to just 197 total yards and played a major factor in Brantley's lackluster 10-for-27, 79-yard passing day.
"Every time we thought we had something down the field, JB was off his spot, moving around and the timing wasn't there," Cushing said.
Brantley said, "It's a difficult situation, with a new coaching staff and all, nobody said it was going to be easy."
2. Despite giving up a few big plays, the Panther defense showed positive signs.
While Illinois State running back James Robinson racked up 146 yards and three touchdowns, Cushing liked what he saw with his defense.
"I think that our defense is doing a pretty good job," he said. "They gave up the big play [a 52-yard touchdown run by Robinson], but other than that, I was happy. They were really, really battling to get themselves off the field."
In fact, EIU thwarted Illinois State 10 times on 14 third-down plays.
And while Robinson showed why he was a preseason All-American, the Panther defenders also caught him in the backfield to the tune of 18 yards in losses.
"We said that in order for us to win the football game, we had to be in the backfield," Cushing said. "We couldn't let them get ahead of the chains."
The first-year EIU head coach praised defensive linemen Austin Johnson and Terrell Greer along with linebacker Dytarious Johnson for their play.
Of Greer, Cushing said, "He's been consistently our best football player."
Meanwhile, Dytarious Johnson had a game-high nine tackles, three of which were for loss and a sack.
"Dytarious is an explosive football player," Cushing said. "He's really a talented young man. He was playing multiple positions today. He gives you a lot of flexibility because of the things he's doing right."
3. A true freshman running back might just be on the verge of something special.
Jaelin Hayes-Benefield is listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, but his coach feels the first-year player from Pearland, Tex. plays much bigger.
"He is one of those guys who literally gives you everything he's got every second of every day," Cushing said. "We've got to continue to get him plays in space."
As things stand, Hayes-Benefield backs up senior Darshon McCullough. Hayes-Benefield ran just four times for eight net yards, but set up Eastern's lone score on a 37-yard screen pass. He led all receivers with seven catches for 44 yards.
Back in the season opener at Chattanooga, Hayes-Benefield broke loose for a 31-yard run.
"He's doing a great job," Brantley said.
EIU plays another nonconference rivalry game when the Panthers travel to Terre Haute to take on Indiana State Saturday.