Season opener may prove to be a harbinger of EIU season to come

Chicago native Adam Cushing enters his third season as Eastern Illinois head coach. (photo courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Saturday’s “Week Zero” game between between regional rivals Eastern Illinois and Indiana State kicks off the fall FCS college football season. Certainly third-year EIU head coach Adam Cushing also wants it to ignite his team to greater heights.

“We’re excited to play, it’s another of those great opportunities,” Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin during fall camp.

The game will also serve as a measuring stick for Cushing’s EIU program. Following a pair of one-win seasons (the second coming in a conference-only spring season), the Chicago native has EIU built on his recruits and transfers. It’s also a team that has grown together from inexperienced freshmen into what the staff hopes is a solid foundation of the future.

“The veteran nature of the team (is a strength), and we don’t have a ton of seniors, but it’s just the fact they’ve been in the system for three years. Since we just got done playing a (spring) season, the retention has been fantastic,” Cushing said.

“The place where we probably got the biggest jump is playing faster,” Cushing said. “They understand what the coaches are asking for fundamentally and mentally, so now physically they can go cut it loose and play way faster.”

Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 5 p.m. Central time, is one of two FCS “Week Zero” games that signal the start of the season.

According to wikipedia, Week 0 refers to the opening weekend of college football games in NCAA Division I football, in which a small number of games are played to begin the regular season, a week before the vast majority of teams begin their season in “Week 1”.

Regional rival

Saturday’s game will be played at Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute and marks the 88th meeting between the rivals separated by just 47 miles. After a short break, EIU and Indiana State renewed the rivalry in 2017 when the Panthers posted a 22-20 victory on a touchdown pass with just three seconds remaining.

EIU leads the all-time series 43-40-4. The two teams played together in the Gateway Conference — the forerunner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference —  from 1985 to 1995. EIU left the Gateway for the Ohio Valley Conference in 1996.

(photo courtesy EIU Athletics)

The Panthers won the last five meetings prior to the series taking a hiatus in 2009. The two schools first met in 1901 with EIU winning 16-0.

However, the Sycamores have won the last two games in the series. The teams did not play in 2020 due to worldwide pandemic; Indiana State opted out of the spring season.

“I know we’re all excited to get back to playing to football,” Indiana State head coach Curt Mallory said at the Missouri Valley’s media day.

Both teams are similar in terms of expectations from the outside. EIU finished last in the seven-team Ohio Valley preseason poll. Indiana State was picked 10th in the 11-team Missouri Valley.

Scouting the Sycamores

Indiana State features over 50 players who are fourth-, fifth- or sixth-year players. Mallory noted that 23 of the 25 seniors who played in 2019 came back.

Three Sycamores landed on the preseason 2021 Phil Steele Missouri Valley Football All-Conference team.

Junior wide receiver Dante Hendrix and senior defensive lineman Inoke Moala were both recognized on the second team, while senior offensive lineman Isaiah Edwards garnered third team recognition.

Hendrix­­ paced the Sycamores’ receiving game in their last action in the 2019 season on his way to earning First Team All-MVFC recognition. The Florence, Ky. native led the team and ranked third in the MVFC with 653 receiving yards, while finishing fifth in the conference with 51 catches.

Northern Illinois transfer Anthony Thompson is the starting quarterback. The Chicago native saw action in five career games with the Huskies, including backup appearances against Central Michigan in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons. 

News & notes

Freshman Otto Kuhns is listed as the starting EIU quarterback. The Ohio native appeared in four games, including three spring starts. Kuhns threw for 509 yards and five touchdowns and also adds the threat of running . . . The Panthers added some transfer depth at wide receiver with Tyler Ringwood from UNC Charlotte and Adarius Dent from Florida State.
Ringwood caught 36 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons at Charlotte. He was the team’s third leading receiver when the 49ers made a bowl game in 2019. Dent transferred to EIU during fall camp; he made three catches in two seasons seeing playing time on special teams . . . Saturday’s game will be the first Indiana State game in 644 days as the Sycamores opted out of the 2020-21 season.  EIU, meanwhile, will continue a span of 17 games in nine months as the Panthers played six games in the spring . . .  The Aug. 28 kickoff date marks the earliest calendar date EIU has ever opened a football season.  This is the fourth time Eastern has played a season opener on that date.  The last time was in 2014 at Minnesota.  EIU also has played Aug. 28 openers in 2008 at Central Michigan and 1997 at Western Illinois.

Where to find the game

Saturday’s 5 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN-Plus and heard on the Panther Radio Network.

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