3 things we learned: EIU falls 27-18 to conference front-runner

3 things we learned:  EIU falls 27-18 to conference front-runner
Isaiah Hill has emerged as EIU's big play receiver. (photo courtesy of eiupanthers.com)

The Eastern Illinois football all-time wins leader's 2010 season didn't go as planned, so perhaps first-year Panther head coach Adam Cushing can find some solace.

Bob Spoo lost the first eight games in 2010, the second-to-last season for the legendary 25-year EIU head coach. Spoo's Panthers rallied to win two of their final three games that season.

While only time with tell if similar late-season success will find Cushing's team, this year's Panthers dropped to 0-8 following a 27-18 loss at UT Martin.

The Skyhawks are the surprise of the Ohio Valley Conference. Picked to finish seventh in the league's preseason poll, UT Martin is 4-0 and atop the OVC standings. The Skyhawks are 5-2 overall.

Eastern is 0-4 in the league.

Here are three things we learned from Saturday's loss:

1. Cushing's Panthers continue to be in games.

A week after giving preseason OVC Jacksonville State a battle, Eastern certainly had its chances to knock off UT Martin.

The Panthers jumped out to an 8-0 lead when linebacker Dytarious Johnson forced a fumble on a quarterback sack that was scooped up by teammate Raymond Crittenden  and returned 51 yards for a touchdown.  It was the first EIU fumble return for a touchdown since Pono Choy had a scoop and score on Oct. 1, 2016 at Southeast Missouri.

Despite trailing 21-11 at halftime, EIU kept the game within striking distance in the second half. In fact, the Panthers cut the UT Martin lead to six late in the game.

2.  Interceptions continue to stymie Eastern.

Junior Harry Woodbery has been the Panthers' starting quarterback since Jonathan Brantley announced he was leaving the team last month. While Woodbery has produced some spectacular moments, his interceptions have come at critical times.

Against UT Martin Saturday, Woodbery threw three first-half interceptions, including one in the end zone from the UT Martin two-yard line. It marked the second straight three-interception game for Woodbery.

Though the Panthers outgained UT Martin (356-241),  they were inefficient with their possessions. EIU was 2-for-6 in converting possessions into points when it drove the ball into the UT Martin side of the field.

On the season, Woodbery has thrown 10 interceptions to five touchdowns. Nearly all of his turnovers have come at costly times.

3. Isaiah Hill produces thrills.

Hill, a Minooka High School graduate, transferred to EIU from FCS powerhouse South Dakota State this past summer. He sat out the first four games waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility. Since being cleared, Hill has zoomed to No. 2 on EIU in receptions.

Hill reeled in a career-high 15 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown against UT Martin. He also had a two-point conversion reception to stake EIU to an 8-0 lead. On the fourth-quarter drive that pulled Eastern to within 24-18, Hill caught five passes, including his 11-yard touchdown.

Hill leads the Panthers with 291 receiving yards and is only one catch behind freshman Jaelin Benefield in receptions. Benefield has 34 catches while Hill has 33 in only half the games.

What's next?

EIU hosts Eastern Kentucky Saturday, Oct. 26 in another Ohio Valley Conference game. Kickoff is 2 p.m.

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