Eastern Illinois closes out spring with third straight ranked conference foe

Cole Hoover (76) is one of the seniors who will be honored Sunday before Eastern Illinois hosts Austin Peay in the spring finale. (photo courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Editor’s note: This preview was published prior to the Ohio Valley Conference announcing that the football game between Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois originally scheduled for Sunday, April 11 in Charleston, Illinois has been postponed. 

Under the OVC’s COVID-19 protocols, Austin Peay does not have the requisite number of student-athletes to compete this weekend, forcing the postponement.

A decision if the game can be rescheduled for the final day of the regular season (Saturday, April 17) will be made at a later point.

During last weekend’s postgame media conference Adam Cushing talked at length about the Panthers’ home finale being “all about the seniors”.

The second-year Eastern Illinois head coach continued that theme during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference Zoom address.

“We’re only playing a couple of seniors on either side of the ball, but at the same time there are some guys who have poured a ton into this program.” Cushing said.

For the record, EIU lists the following players as seniors: offensive linemen Cole Hoover and Drew Walega, receivers Robbie Lofton and Matt Reyna, quarterbacks Harry Woodbery and Stephen Frank, defensive linemen Dytarious Johnson and James Ubaike and defensive backs Raymond Crittenden, Iziah Gulley, Jestin Morrow and Mark Williams. Some of these players may return for the fall season.

Playing with a youth-dominated roster, the Panthers are 1-5 this spring.

“As few (seniors) as there are, those guys have been great examples about how we want to go about our business,” Cushing said. “You’ve got some guys who are playing their last game ever potentially.”

This marks the third straight week that EIU plays a ranked opponent.

“This is an incredibly competitive league,” Cushing said. “We’ve been in a one-score game into the fourth quarter the last four weeks.”

Growth mind set

Cushing spoke of the growth of his young team, which consisted predominately of freshmen and sophomores — many of whom saw significant playing time this spring.

“An understanding of how to stay locked in the moment and laser-focused in the moment,” Cushing said. “As we’ve gone on, that has improved.”

Cushing elaborated by saying that most games — especially those at the Division I level — come down to “a handful of plays”.

“When those plays go the other way, that’s where the margin was so big early in the year, as we’ve narrowed that margin because our guys have just truly understood that you have to play every single play as hard as you can for as long as you can.”

He also talked about the increased depth that the Panthers have developed with this spring’s game experience.

Scouting Austin Peay

The Governors are coming off a 34-31 victory over previously unbeaten Murray State and thus landed tied for the No. 25 spot in Monday’s Stats Perform FCS poll.

Austin Peay brings a 4-5 overall record into Charleston’s O’Brien Field Sunday. The Governors are 4-2 in the Ohio Valley.

Quarterback Draylen Ellis was named OVC Newcomer of the Week after the win over No. 13 Murray State. He accounted for 253 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Ellis passed for 227 yards and two scores and ran for 26 yards and an 11-yard TD.

Kicker Grant Paulette booted the game-winner with two seconds left to knock off Murray State. Kicking for the first time this spring, Paulette nailed field goals of 33 and 40 yards and was honored as the OVC’s Specialist of the Week.

All six of Austin Peay’s games have been decided by seven points or less, the last three each by three, including two decided on field goals in the final two seconds.

News & notes

Jacksonville State and Murray State — both ranked teams that defeated EIU the past two weeks — meet Sunday to determine which school wins the Ohio Valley title and earns the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs . . . the Panthers have played four nationally ranked teams this season. EIU opened the spring with No. 21 Southeast Missouri State . . . Opponents have outscored EIU 44-17 off turnovers . . . Eastern has gone 31 times on fourth down, converting 10 (32 percent) . . . freshman Jordan Smith holds a slight edge over sophomore Jaelin Benefield 278-258 for the team rushing lead. Smith has played one more game than Benefield . . . super back Jay Vallie leads EIU with 18 catches and three touchdowns while teammate Dwayne Cooks is tops with 241 receiving yards.

Where to find the game

EIU’s home game with Austin Peay will kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at WEIU.net

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