Eastern Illinois has taken its lumps fielding a youth-oriented team. Yet, Sunday it was those same young players that sparked the Panthers to their first win of the spring.
A week after failing to close out a victory, EIU (1-3) made plays in all three phases en route to a 28-20 triumph over visiting Tennessee Tech (1-3) in Ohio Valley Conference action.
“We talked about that. Sometimes those games that are so heartbreaking . . . They come back and beat you twice. If you hang onto that heartbreak . . . that’s what we said, you’ve got to get rid of that heartbreak,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said in the postgame.
In fact, EIU ended practice this week by screaming out the heartbreak. Sunday afternoon the Panthers screamed postgame in victory.
“I will enjoy this one tonight,” Cushing said.
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the EIU victory.
- Freshman-to-freshman connection
Making his second start, quarterback Otto Kuhns twice hooked up with fellow freshman Arron Foukles for touchdowns.
Foulkes entered the game with two catches on the season yet made big plays at key times. After hauling in a 17-yard touchdown in the second quarter, Foulkes — a 5-foot-8, 165-pounder from Southfield, Mich. — got behind the TTU secondary and reeled in a 36-yard TD off a play-action pass.
“Arron is one of those guys that the moment is never too big for,” Cushing said.
Foulkes finished with three receptions for 60 yards. He also carried the ball three times for five yards, including a failed jet sweep on a fourth down.
Kuhns was 12-for-19 for 153 yards and the two TDs. He was sacked twice. Kuhns threw his first career interception on the final play of the game when he rolled out and threw the ball high into the end zone to run the clock out on the victory. It’s an interception both he and Cushing will gladly accept.
Kuhns also converted an important 4th-and-1 on a QB sneak to the EIU 35 and allowed the Panthers to get the clock down to the 2:52 mark before punting.
“Otto stood in there with pressure in his face,” Cushing said. “Some bigtime freshmen making some bigtime plays.”
2. Defensive dandies
EIU produced key plays on defense to stem the tide of Tennessee Tech’s offense.
Perhaps none was bigger than true freshman Colin Bohanek’s interception with 1:46 remaining. The Marist product tipped TTU quarterback Bailey Fisher’s pass and then corralled it to end the Golden Eagles’ final threat of the afternoon.
Sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson once again led the Panthers in tackles (15). The Rich Central High School graduate also had two tackles-for-loss and a sack.
Eastern also got strong play out of its secondary despite losing two senior starters. Ray Crittenden was disqualified on a second quarter targeting call and thus did not play in the second half. Cornerback Mark Williams left with an apparent injury on the series after he grabbed his seventh career interception.
Minus those two veterans, JJ Ross and Jestin Morrow were thrust into the lineup before Williams returned in the fourth quarter.
“The good part is that we’d already been rotating guys through so they were ready for the game action,” Cushing said.
Morrow was called for controversial pass interference on a wobbly 4th-and-6 pass. TTU scored on the next play, cutting the lead to 28-20 with 7:11 remaining.
Earlier, linebacker Anthony Shockey thwarted a third quarter TTU drive with his first career interception and a return to the Golden Eagles’ 28. However, EIU turned the ball over on downs.
Eastern entered the game with only one sack and one interception on the season. However, the Panthers pressured Fisher much of the day and sacked the junior three times. EIU also intercepted him three times — all in the second half.
“The plan was to do better in those two areas,” Cushing said. “We said for us to take the next step as a defense we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback. We’ve got to affect the QB.
“When you see the quarterback getting affected and getting hit, that leads to some interceptions.”
Bohanek and sophomore Tim Varga each had eight tackles.
3. Strong special teams start
The Panthers got off a fast start when Marcus Bornslater both blocked and recovered a TTU punt in the end zone for a touchdown. The play stood after being reviewed to see if Bornslater had gone out of the end zone on the recovery.
“When you give maximum effort, all of the sudden there’s those inches that just show up for you,” Cushing said.
However, Eastern also suffered a special teams blunder on the final play of the third quarter.
Tennessee Tech used a timeout to keep the clock from running out so it could punt with a strong wind at punter Jacob Anderson’s back. The strategy paid dividends as redshirt freshman Matt Judd muffed the punt and the Golden Eagles recovered at the EIU 27. TTU cashed in with a field goal cutting the lead to 28-13.
EIU travels to OVC leader and nationally ranked Murray State Sunday, March 28.