In a season of difficult moments Saturday's 24-17 loss at Murray State is easily the most bitter for Eastern Illinois.
EIU came within inches of potentially tying the game (and perhaps winning with a two-point conversion), but receiver DeWayne Cooks' catch at the half-yard line came up short of the end zone as time ran out. A replay confirmed the call, resulting in Eastern falling to 0-6 overall and 0-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Murray State improved to 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the OVC.
Eastern has now lost seven games dating back to last season.
Here are three things we learned about EIU in Saturday's loss:
1. Even when things go right, they go wrong for a struggling team.
Murray State fumbled five times and EIU recovered four. Yet, the Panthers only got three points off those turnovers.
The Panthers appeared on the verge of scoring off one of the turnovers when linebacker Dytarious Johnson scooped up a second-quarter fumble near midfield and returned it 49 yards to the Murray State 1. However, Johnson fumbled the ball into the end zone where Murray State pounced on it for a touchback.
Johnson's miscue followed a costly error by the EIU offense. After Eastern's defense came up with a big fourth down stop of the Murray State offense deep in Panther territory, the EIU offense took over on its own 7. After two incompletions, Panther quarterback Harry Woodbery dropped back into his own end zone under heavy pressure and had his pass batted. EIU running back Chris Walker snatched the ball out of the air and was tackled for a safety.
Early in the second quarter, Murray State 294-pound offensive lineman Jacob Vance picked up a Racer fumble and rumbled for a 13-yard gain.
2. The lack of a running game continues.
Eastern attempted to run the ball 26 times and netted just 71 yards (2.7 average). Although true freshman Jaelin Benefield had an 11-yard run and Walker — a transfer from Cornell — broke loose with a 15-yarder, the Panthers had just two other rushes for more than four yards (both five-yard runs).
Benefield was the leading EIU rusher with 32 yards on 14 carries. The Pearland, Tex. native was also the Panthers top receiver with seven catches for 51 yards, including a five-yard touchdown reception.
Walker ran for 29 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Woodbery had a 19-yard run wiped out by a holding penalty — one of five penalties called on the EIU offense.
As a result, Woodbery threw the ball 49 times — down from the school-record 68 attempts a week ago. The redshirt junior from The Woodlands, Tex. completed 30 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. He did not thrown any interceptions, nor was he sacked.
3. Big plays bit the Panthers.
Defining an explosive play as a rush gaining at least 12 yards or a pass gaining at least 16 — one of many definitions coaches use — Murray State produced 15 against Eastern. Moreover, the Racers showed balance with seven runs and eight passes accounting for those explosive plays.
Murray State quarterback Preston Rice averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and 14.4 yards per completion.
Early in the fourth quarter, Murray State surprised EIU on a 4th-and-9 from the Racer 34 as T.J. Warren ripped off a 30-yard run on a fake punt. Earlier, Warren had recorded the safety for Murray State.
Eastern hosts defending OVC champion Jacksonville State Saturday.