3 things we learned: Eastern Illinois drops spring opener

Eastern freshman Kendi Young breaks free for a 75-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. (photo courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Eastern Illinois looked even rustier than one would expect from a 463-day layoff caused by the worldwide pandemic.

Southeast Missouri State breezed to an easy 47-7 win over the Panthers in Sunday’s Ohio Valley Conference opener for both teams.

“We didn’t expect this. We expected much better,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said in the postgame. “That’s a really, really good football team that we lined up across from. They’re a ranked team that played like a really good football team. I’m going to give them all the credit in the world. I’m not going to shortchange them a bit.

“But, that doesn’t mean that we played well. We didn’t play well at all. We didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to make plays.”

Three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from Sunday’s game:

  1. EIU’s offense struggles continue

The Panthers had difficulty moving the ball in 2019 and those woes continued in the season opener.

EIU managed only 114 first-half yards, 72 on which came on one play. Twice the Panthers failed on fourth-and-short yardage attempts; EIU also turned the ball over twice and went 0-for-7 on third downs in the first two quarters. The Panthers were just 2-of-15 by game’s end.

“We’ve got to go get first downs on offense,” Cushing said. “We were just having so many zero yard plays.”

Veteran quarterback Harry Woodbery was just 5-for-18 for 32 yards in the first half. He also threw an interception that led to a SEMO touchdown. He finished the day 10-of-26 for 101 yards with two interceptions.

As a result, 21st-ranked Southeast Missouri enjoyed favorable field position for much of the first half and built a 34-0 lead and cruised to the easy victory.

The Redhawks broke the game wide open with a 27-point second quarter. SEMO, which lost its only fall game 20-17 at Southern Illinois, made the FCS playoffs in 2018 and ’19 under seventh-year head coach Tom Matukewicz.

SEMO ran 54 plays in the first half and amassed 333 yards and 14 first downs.

2. Special team woes

A familiar bugaboo returned for the Panthers as SEMO blocked a punt and set up the Redhawks’ second touchdown on a short field.

“Allowing the blocked punt early, that changed the game,” Cushing said. “That set the tone for some bad things to slide.”

EIU has been plagued by poor special teams play for the past several seasons.

SEMO had several positive kickoff and punt returns.

“Their specialists did a great job of switching the field for them, and we didn’t execute in switching the field on our special teams,” Cushing said.

Many of EIU’s Stone Galloway’s punts were low line drives directly at the returner. He averaged 35.1 yards per punt.

3. Youth will be served

Eastern is in a rebuild mode in Cushing’s second year at the Panther helm.

The staff has clearly made the decision to give younger players meaningful experience.

The Panthers started five freshmen and three sophomores on defense and three sophomores in the offensive line. 

Kendi Young

Freshman running back Kendi Young broke loose for a 72-yard touchdown on just his second career carry in the waning minutes of the first half. The Thornton Fractional North graduate led EIU with 88 yards on 11 carries.

Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Cooks led EIU with five receptions for 62 yards.

Sophomore Anthony Shockey tied for the team lead with nine tackles including one for loss.

True freshman Colin Bohanek from Chicago Marist recorded six tackles (four solo) in a reserve role.

News and notes

Receiver Isaiah Hill and defensive end/linebacker Dytarious Johnson were each named to the preseason All-OVC squad, but neither appeared in Sunday’s game. Cushing said that Hill is injured and likely won’t play next week . . . SEMO quarterback Andrew Bunch passed for 302 yards, 229 in the first half alone . . . SEMO outgained EIU 474-286 in total yards . . . Eastern turned the ball over four times, three coming off interceptions . . . true freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns played much of the fourth quarter.

What’s next?

Eastern returns to OVC action Sunday, March 7 at UT-Martin. This is a makeup date for a game that was originally scheduled to open the season but postponed by severe winter weather.

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