Youthful Panthers face first true test since 2019

Youthful Panthers face first true test since 2019
Eastern Illinois has not played a football game in 463 days. (photo courtesy of

Eastern Illinois’ wait lasted a week longer than expected, but the Panthers are scheduled to open their long-awaited Ohio Valley Conference-only spring season Sunday at O’Brien Field. It will be EIU’s first true test in roughly 15 months.

Eastern was supposed to begin last weekend, but the impact of recent winter storm forced a postponement at UT-Martin. That game has been rescheduled for March 7, which was previously left as an open date on the schedule.

“We’ve continued to say, ‘what does this make possible?’ We’ve been saying it for 12 months now,” second-year head coach Adam Cushing said during the OVC’s weekly media address.

Saturday’s opponent is Southeast Missouri State, which also lost its season opener because of the severe weather that struck the Midwest. The Redhawks are ranked 21st as one of three Ohio Valley Conference teams in the Stats Perform poll along with Jacksonville State (16th) and Tennessee Tech (23rd).

SEMO has won 13 conference games over the last two seasons, most in the OVC in that span.

Meanwhile, Cushing’s EIU team has been remade to the tune of an 85 percent turnover rate from the program in 2018 under former coach Kim Dameron.

“It’s completely different in a lot of ways, from a personnel standpoint,” EIU offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski told Prairie State Pigskin. “We were the youngest team in all of college football (in fall 2019). I don’t know of anybody who has started five true freshmen on the offensive line at any level.”

According to Tuesday’s EIU’s depth chart, three sophomores will start in the offensive line Sunday. In addition, two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore will serve as backups.

In 2019, left tackle Chad Strickland made 10 starts earning second team Freshman All-American honors. Other returnees are sophomore Elkhanan Tanelus, who started nine games at left guard, and sophomore Anthony Imperio, who started seven games at right tackle.

EIU is banking on the experience those players have gained since the global pandemic cancelled the fall 2020 season and sent the Panthers into this unprecedented seven-game spring league schedule.

“We got older. We basically had three offseasons. We had spring of 2020. We had summer/fall 2020, and had another one with our camp,” Kuceyeski said. “That was just huge for this group to develop even more trust. You look at year two in a system and that’s when it really starts to believe and year three when it really starts to take off. I’m hoping that we’ve got year two done, and now we’re in year three.”

Meanwhile, according to EIU’s two-deep chart, five freshmen and three sophomores will start on defense. 

“Certainly you always want to see some experience out there on the field, but we’re incredibly pleased with our group of newcomers this year,” Cushing said during a recent OVC Zoom session. “The fact that we had fall ball with this group of freshmen, this isn’t the same as a first game at the end of August or early September. These guys have been in the system.”

The Panthers will be missing two key veteran defensive contributors against UT-Martin:  defensive back Bryce Dewberry and defensive end/linebacker Dytarious Johnson.

“Those guys aren’t going to be able to play in the first one; we’ll hopefully see as it goes along here how it plays out,” Cushing said.

Johnson is the Panthers’ top returning tackler and sack leader. Dewberry is EIU’s fourth-leading returning tackler.

‘Quarterback friendly’ system

Senior Harry Woodbery gets the starting nod at quarterback. Should he falter or get injured, the Panthers must go to a group of inexperienced players.

It’s a room that’s obviously young,” Kuceyeski said. “The room has changed quite a bit since we’ve gotten here, through graduation and attrition.

“Against SEMO (in a 26-12 loss in 2019), we lost Harry (to injury). We were playing a redshirt freshman walk-on (Jonah O’Brien who has since transferred to Colorado State). What it taught us as coaches is that we’ve got to make sure that this system is quarterback friendly. It was, but we really shored it up to make it even more so. Based on the inexperience in the o-line and other positions, we’ve got to give the players the chance to succeed. This extra time has given us the chance to clean it up even more.”

Backing up Woodbery for the season opener is Otto Kuhns, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound true freshman from Carroll, Ohio.

“He showed up in the fall and has really, really grown. He’s not like that true freshman. He would have been a lot greener had we thrown the ball down Sept. 1,” Kuceyeski said. “He’s a different quarterback than Harry in the sense of he’s a little bit more of that dual-threat guy that has a chance to use his feet to win, but also has the arm talent.”

Scouting SEMO

The Redhawks posted a 9-4 record and a share of the 2019 OVC title along with a playoff berth. While many of the key players from that team are gone, SEMO remains very much in contention in the current league race. Former Southern Illinois assistant Tom Matukewicz’s team played one fall game, losing 20-17 to the Salukis in Carbondale.

Nebraska transfer quarterback Andrew Bunch ran for 115 yards against SIU.

“It starts with quarterback,” Cushing said. “We’ve got to do a great job of knowing where he’s at all the time.”

However, look for running backs Zion Custis and Geno Hess to get the bulk of the carries behind an experienced offensive line. Six-foot-4 Aaron Alston returns as the Redhawks’ top receiving threat.

The defense, generally a Matukewicz-coached hallmark, feeds off turnovers. 

What does this game mean?

Sunday’s outcome could prove to be a measuring stick to see what progress the young Panthers have made since their last games in the fall of 2019.

News and notes

Redshirt junior Isaiah Hill and Johnson were named to the preseason All-OVC squad.  . . . Sunday’s game is the first football game action for the Panthers since Nov. 23, 2019 – a span of 463 days. The last time EIU had a gap that big or bigger between games was in the midst of World War II when EIU went 686 days between games (1942-44) . . . Cushing has been named to the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee.  Cushing is the lone football coach on the committee and will serve a four-year term until June 30, 2024. The Football Oversight Committee ensures that appropriate oversight of football for both the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision is maintained, enhances the development of the sport and make recommendations related to regular-season and postseason football along with other duties.

Where can I find the game?

ESPN+ will air the game live at 2 p.m. Sunday. Fans can listen to the radio broadcast live on the Panther Radio Network.

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