Eastern Illinois made strides on the offensive side of the ball in last Saturday's home loss to Tennessee Tech, but turnovers and a record-setting performance by TTU quarterback Bailey Fisher kept the Panthers from breaking through for their first win of the season.
"We've got to do a better job of protecting the football," first-year head coach Adam Cushing said during the weekly Ohio Valley Conference media address.
The 40-29 loss dropped EIU to 0-5 overall and 0-1 in the OVC. The Panthers travel to Murray State (2-3 overall, 0-1 in the league) Saturday.
"I don't think their record is indicative of their opponents," Murray State head coach Mitch Stewart said. "Other than their FBS opponent in Indiana . . . everybody else is either ranked or should be ranked or were ranked."
Following Jonathan Brantley's decision to leave the team and use his redshirt season in hopes of transferring to another program, junior Harry Woodbery made his first start at quarterback last weekend.
Woodbery, who split time with Brantley the past two seasons, threw a school-record 68 times against Tennessee Tech. Woodbery had 34 completions for 334 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw a costly interception and also fumbled.
"He's got a big arm and makes good decisions with it," Cushing said. "It was his first action of the year running the ball; we've got to keep that as part of our game."
'Affecting the quarterback'
Defensively, the Panthers were put into difficult short-field situations as a result of the turnovers, which led to Tennessee Tech turning a tie game into a 21-7 advantage it did not relinquish.
"We've got to do a great job on defense of affecting the quarterback," Cushing said.
While both Dytarious Johnson and Austin Johnson (no relation) had sacks last weekend, more pressure is needed on a Murray State offense that spreads the field and relies on quick passes.
Murray State quarterback Preston Rice went 17-for-29 for 250 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the Racers' 40-7 loss to UT Martin.
Seniors Joe Caputo and James Sheehan have both missed significant times with injuries this season. Both are listed as backups on this week's two-deep chart.
Caputo, a linebacker from Mount Prospect, finished as EIU's leading tackler a year ago. He has missed the last two games.
Sheehan, a tight end from Homewood-Flossmoor, was second team all-conference with 50 catches for 544 yards last season. He has missed the past three games.
What does this game mean?
If Eastern is to post an OVC victory, Saturday's game stands out as one of the more likely possibilities on the remaining schedule. While the Panthers were predicted to finish eighth in the league's preseason poll, the Racers were chosen for a fifth-place tie with Tennessee State.
Ironically (or perhaps showing the value of summer polls), EIU and Murray State both suffered losses to teams predicted to finish behind them in the standings last Saturday.
Where can I find the game?
Eastern Illinois at Murray State will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN-Plus. On radio, the game with air live on WEIU.net/hitmix.