Eastern Illinois encounters a stark contrast when the Panthers travel to UT-Martin Sunday for an Ohio Valley Conference game originally scheduled for late February.
The two teams were supposed to open their spring conference schedules Feb. 21, but the game was pushed back because of the brutal winter storm that affected much of the country. Meanwhile, Sunday’s forecast calls for a sunny high of 61 degrees.
Second-year EIU head coach Adam Cushing is also striving for a contrast in his team’s performance from last year’s 47-7 home loss to 21st-ranked Southeast Missouri State.
“It’s hard to come back when we get your tail whipped by 40. It’s hard to come back tomorrow and have that mentality of learning, growing because you’re still licking your wounds a little bit, but that’s what it’s got to be,” Cushing said following the loss.
Cushing’s message has resonated with his coaching staff and players.
“Obviously we’re a young team and when you play a team that has had a lot of success in our conference in the past couple years, it’s a challenge,” EIU center Ben Solomon said. “We had a rough first quarter and there was a lot of rust to knock off.”
Much of that rust can be attributed to EIU not having played for 463 days as well as numerous Panthers playing their first collegiate game.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” said Solomon, a redshirt junior. “We came out flat and it’s something for us to improve on.”
Cushing added, “The biggest improvement is from week one to week two. It’s a cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason.”
For the second straight week, the Panthers will likely be without three key starters from their 2019 team.
Receiver Isaiah Hill and defensive end/linebacker Dytarious Johnson, both preseason All-OVC selections, are not listed on the EIU depth chart that was released late in the week. Safety Bryce Dewberry is also out.
Sophomore cornerback JJ Ross played a solid game against SEMO.
The Ohio native picked up where he left off last season in defending passes. Ross finished with five solo tackles, two pass break-ups and a fumble recovery.
Ross ranks fourth in the NCAA in passes defended. Last season he earned Freshman All-American honors leading the team with four interceptions, including two in the final game of the season at Austin Peay.
Like EIU, the Skyhawks lost their league opener, falling 14-10 in the rain at Murray State. The was delayed over two hours by lightning strikes.
UT-Martin junior Dresser Winn was named OVC Specialist of the Week after his dual-threat performance in the game.
Winn, punting in his first collegiate game, tallied seven punts for 299 yards, averaging 42.7 yards/per punt with a game-long of 58 yards.
Winn later entered on the final two drives for the Skyhawks at quarterback and drove them down the field with 38 yards of total offense and a one-yard rushing touchdown – the fifth rushing touchdown of his career – to make it a one-score game in the final minute.
“I’m proud of our defense for holding a team to 14 points, that should be good enough to win,” UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson said afterward. “We just didn’t get it done on offense tonight. Too many shoulda, coulda, wouldas and that is disappointing. We just couldn’t get those first game mistakes out of the way and it cost us tonight.”
Where can I catch the game?
The game is on ESPN+ and the Panther Radio Network. Kickoff is 1 p.m.