Lead, chance to upset No. 17 Murray State vanish in 2nd half for EIU Panthers

DeQuan Dallas of Murray State outruns EIU safety Raymond Crittenden (4) into the end zone in the third quarter Sunday in Murray, Ky. (Photo by Dave Winder, Murray State Athletics)

It took 5 minutes, 31 seconds for Eastern Illinois to take a two-touchdown lead Sunday at Murray State in the third quarter.

Less than 5 minutes later, the lead was gone as No. 17 Murray (5-0) rolled up 28 unanswered points to roar past EIU, 41-27.

Eastern fell to 1-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference spring season as it committed three second-half turnovers and failed on fourth down at the Murray State 13-yard line with the score tied at 27.

The Panthers had a promising start to the second half when, with the game tied at 10, senior cornerback Mark Williams returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on Murray State’s first offensive play.

After Murray kicker Aaron Baum booted a 58-yard field goal with a 25 mph wind at his back, Eastern got another big play.

On its first play of the following drive, EIU freshman running back Jordan Smith took a handoff and ran left, where he was bottled up. Smith cut back with the help of a block from quarterback Otto Kuhns and ran around right end for an 80-yard score and a 27-13 Eastern lead.

Smith posted a career-high 142 rushing yards on 13 carries.

For the game, the Panthers outgained Murray, 413-346, and had 241 yards on the ground.

But mistakes proved costly throughout the second half.

After Smith was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play at the Murray 13 late in the third quarter, the Racers completed a 50-yard pass on the next play and tallied a field goal go ahead for good at 30-27.

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the EIU loss.

  1. Passing game struggles

While Eastern’s run game shined, the pass game consistently sputtered. Kuhns and backup Harry Woodbery, who entered the game in the fourth quarter, combined to complete 36% of their passes (13-for-36). Kuhns was sacked twice and finished the game with one completion and two interceptions in his final six pass attempts. Woodbery was 3-for-10. For the game, Murray State’s defense was credited with 10 pass breakups.

2. Running game gains ground

Without starting running back Jaelin Benefield, who was on the sideline in street clothes, Eastern posted a season-best 241 rushing yards, led by Smith. Kuhns added 64 yards on the ground as Eastern rushed for 6 yards per carry. Among his 13 carries, Smith had four runs of 10 yards or more and no negative plays.

3. Big plays prove costly

In the second half, Murray State had six plays of 12 yards or more against the Panthers’ young defense. In addition, Murray State was 6-for-6 in red zone scoring opportunities. On special teams, Murray had the 58-yard field goal and a 48-yard fourth-quarter punt return.

News and notes

The interception by Williams was the eighth of his career and second this season. … EIU sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson, the OVC’s leader tackler, has 11 stops and one of seven EIU’s tackles for loss. Fellow sophomore linebacker Anthony Shockey had two TFLs. … A week after blocking and recovering a punt for a touchdown, sophomore safety Marcus Bornslater made another big special teams play. Bornslater recovered a muffed third-quarter punt to help Eastern take a two-touchdown lead. … In the second half, Eastern was 0-for-8 on third downs. … Senior wide receiver Robbie Lofton led the Panthers with three receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown.

What’s up next?

EIU hosts Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 3 at O’Brien Field in Charleston.

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