3 things we learned: School-record fumble return sparks EIU to conference-opening win

Jordan Miles (91) and Jason Johnson (8) helped lead Eastern Illinois to a 28-14 win. (photo courtesy EIU Athletics)

A momentum-swinging, game-changing play by Eastern Illinois’ defense sparked the Panthers to a 28-14 victory Saturday at Tennessee Tech to open the Ohio Valley Conference schedule.

Trailing 21-14, TTU appeared on the verge of tying the game when quarterback Drew Martin fumbled on a scramble inside the EIU 10-yard line.  

Panther defensive back Bryce Dewberry scooped up the loose ball and weaved his way for a school-record 90-yard touchdown. The TD thwarted Tennessee Tech and catapulted the Panthers to victory.

The win was the first of the season for EIU (1-4) but allowed the Panthers to open OVC play with a 1-0 record. Tennessee Tech fell to 0-4 overall and 0-1 in the league.

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the EIU victory:

  1. Big plays continue to decide games

Eastern fell behind early when Martin connected with Quinton Cross on a 62-yard touchdown pass.

The Panther defense delivered at key moments.

After Eastern scored its first touchdown to pull within a point, freshman safety Kaelin Drakeford intercepted a Martin pass with 1:11 remaining in the half. That led to EIU’s second touchdown and a successful two-point conversion to take a 14-7 lead.

“It wasn’t pretty,” third-year EIU head coach Adam Cushing said. “When you play as hard as you can for as long as you possibly can, the bounces go your way.”

2. EIU’s ‘next man up’ philosophy produced two TDs

With key receivers sidelined by injuries, the Panthers may have discovered a new go-to target.

Freshman DeAirious Smith caught a pair of touchdowns from quarterback Otto Kuhns.

“I’m so proud of DeAirious,” Cushing said. “He showed what he’s capable of today.”

Smith had six catches for 109 yards.

3. Defensive pressure always makes things easier

Cushing said one of the keys to the win was EIU’s pressure on Martin, who made the start for TTU in place of the injured Willie Miller.

“Our defensive line was in the backfield,” Cushing said. “Our defensive line was getting in his (Martin’s) face and making him make rushed decisions.”

Defensive lineman Jordan Miles said, “That felt extraordinary. I was just looking forward to our defensive line getting pressure back there and containing him (Martin).”

Punter Logen Neidhardt again turned in a solid performance. The transfer pinned TTU inside its 10-yard line in the second quarter.

On a TTU third-down play, Dewberry helped force the Golden Eagles to punt from their 1-yard line, giving EIU good field position. 

EIU forced two turnovers on the final two Tennessee Tech possessions of the game. Miles forced two fumbles in the victory.

News & notes

Linebacker Jason Johnson led the defense with 16 tackles and a fumble recovery . . . Miles had four tackles with two sacks, both forcing fumbles . . . Tim Varga added two more sacks for EIU’s defense . . . Receiver Arron Foulkes scored on a 24-yard jet sweep run . . . Harrison Bey-Buie led Eastern with a career-high 79 yards on 19 carries . . . Kuhns was 15-for-26 for 183 yards and two touchdowns. He threw one interception but was not sacked.

What’s next

Eastern travels to Murray State Saturday, Oct. 2 for another OVC game.

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