It's one thing to make your home coaching debut against a lesser opponent. It's quite another to face a rival that just so happens to be the 13th-ranked team in the country in front of the home folks.
Yet, that's the very task for first-year Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing.
“They play the game the right way,” Cushing said of the Illinois State Redbirds. “They play hard. They’re physical. They run the football. They run to the ball on defense.”
Cushing's Panthers have lost their first two games this season--a 24-10 defeat at Chattanooga and a 52-0 shutout at Indiana.
EIU head coaches are 5-1 in their first career home opener with the Panthers dating back to the 1978 season.
Home opener drought
Eastern has lost its last five home openers. The last home opening win at O'Brien Field occurred Sept. 14, 2013, when the Panthers whipped Illinois State 57-24. Jimmy Garoppolo, now the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback, went 26-of-41 for 480 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns.
In fact, Garoppolo tied the school record in the second quarter with his sixth touchdown pass connecting with Erik Lora for 13 yards with 4:49 left before halftime.
Garoppolo set the record in the second half hitting Lora again from seven yards out with 13:55 left to play. Both players will be inducted into the EIU athletic hall of fame later this month.
When the 100th game in the series rolled around in 2011, representatives from the two schools met and decided to give the rivalry its present moniker: the Mid-America Classic.
The two schools also collaborated on a traveling trophy, which holds the results of the previous 100 games in the series and contains room to engrave the results of future games in the series.
The newly minted Mid-America Classic went to the Panthers with longtime head coach Bob Spoo besting his good friend, Illinois State head coach Brock Spack 33-26 in Charleston. However, since that game, Spack's Redbirds have won six of nine contests.
Saturday marks the 108th between EIU and ISU. The rivalry game was first played in 1901 and is the oldest FCS rivalry game in the Illinois and the 14th oldest in FCS football.
What does this game mean?
The obvious answer is bragging rights and the chance to hold the traveling trophy up while parading around for friends, family and photographers.
Beyond that, a third straight Illinois State victory would be the series longest winning streak since the Redbirds took six in a row from 2003 to 2007 (the teams played twice in 2006 including a 24-13 ISU playoff win).
A win by the Panthers would not only snap EIU's losing string in the series, but would be a major achievement in Cushing's inaugural season.
”I know that it’s a big deal, even going through the interview process,” Cushing said. “The campus is abuzz. This is an important one. It’s going to be an exciting one because it’s such a long-standing tradition. That’s what makes college football so exciting, those long-standing traditions.”
Where can I find the game?
Illinois State (1-1) at Eastern Illinois (0-2). (Radio: ISU Radio Network AM 1230, 33.7 FM & Tune-In App; EIU Radio Network 88.9 FM, Charleston (WEIU.net/HitMix; TV: ESPN-Plus).
Kickoff is 2 p.m.