Fresh off first win, EIU faces top two league teams in succession

Fresh off first win, EIU faces top two league teams in succession
True freshman Jaelin Benefield earned Ohio Valley Conference Newcomer of the Week honors for his performance against Tennessee State. (photo courtesy eiupanthers.com)

A key play in the first victory in the Adam Cushing era for Eastern Illinois came on a second half onside kick — a play that stretched back to the first-year coach's time in Evanston.

After pulling to within three points of Tennessee State at 38-35 this past Saturday, EIU executed an onside kick with five seconds left in the third quarter.

Redshirt freshman Charles Shelton IV recovered the onside kick.  After creating its own break, EIU reaped the benefit with an eight-play, 54-yard drive capped by senior James Sheehan's second touchdown catch of the game, giving the Panthers the lead with 10:17 to play. EIU wound up winning 49-38.

"We are always looking for ways to be aggressive and win games," Cushing said during Tuesday's Ohio Valley's teleconference. "It was something, quite frankly, that particular onside that I learned from Randy Walker, the first coach I worked for at Northwestern University. It was one of his favorite plays."

Walker died suddenly of an apparent heart attack in 2006 at age 52. Pat Fitzgerald was named his replacement and kept Cushing on the NU staff for the next 13 years.

"He (Walker) used it a number of times," Cushing said. "I was only fortunate enough to work with him for a couple of years, but the first year I got there watching offseason cutups (of film) they had used it, and then we used it in the two years I worked with him probably four, five, six times.”

Cushing received numerous texts and calls of congratulations following his first head coaching victory. One of them came from Walker's wife Tammy.

"I told her that Coach Walk is up there looking down on us and smiling about that play," Cushing said.

The schedule doesn't let up

Saturday's win not only was the first of the season for EIU, but it also broke a 10-game losing streak that stretched back to last season.

Yet, the final two games offer no breaks in the schedule, a slate that was recognized as the nation's sixth toughest in the FCS preseason. Saturday's Senior Day opponent at O'Brien Field is No. 15 Southeast Missouri State. EIU closes outs its season next weekend at Austin Peay. Both opponents are 7-3 overall and 5-1 in the OVC.

"I'm looking at it as a positive because we're playing our best football of the season," Cushing said. "They're both really good football teams. We've got a heckuva challenge."

Motion, shifts & misdirection

In recent weeks, Eastern has put more motion, shifts and movement into its offensive sets.

Cushing indicated that's a natural progression as its young offensive line gains experience and as its playmakers have emerged.

"Our guys have a really, really good concept of what our base formations are and how to execute our base stuff at a really high level and really high tempo. It opens up more things," Cushing said. "We've got some weapons as far as players that have really come on and allowed us to use them in the motion game and gain some advantages."

The Panthers exploited those advantages to the tune of 265 rushing yards in the win over Tennessee State. Running backs Darshon McCullough (career-high 155 yards) and Jaelin Benefield (career-high 105) yards took turns gashing the Tigers' defense. It marked the 23rd time in school history a pair of running backs had gone over the century mark in the same game.

Benefield was named OVC Newcomer of the Week for his performance, which included three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving). He added four receptions for 32 yards.   

"Those guys went out and had phenomenal days," Cushing said. "That was by far our o-line's best offensive game."

Johnson & Johnson

True freshman linebacker Jason Johnson led EIU nine tackles in the win over Tennessee State. Johnson, who grew up in Matteson, prepped at Rich Central High School. Junior linebacker Dytarious Johnson (no relation) had seven tackles and two forced fumbles.

EIU limited Tennessee State to just 62 yards of offense in the second half.

What this game means

Last week Cushing talked about sending out Eastern's seniors with a flourish. A win in the home finale over a nationally ranked opponent would certainly do that.

Where can I find the game?

EIU’s noon game against Southeast Missouri State on Saturday will air ESPN-Plus. On radio, the broadcast can be heard online at WEIU.net/HitMix.

 

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