EIU Panthers host ISU Redbirds in Mid-America Classic rivalry game

Illinois State players celebrate with the Mid-America Classic traveling trophy in 2019. The Redbirds have won three straight games in the rivalry. (photo courtesy goredbirds.com)

Following a year’s hiatus because of the worldwide pandemic, rivals Eastern Illinois and Illinois State will again meet on the football field Saturday at Charleston’s O’Brien Field.

Of late, the series has been one-sided. ISU has won three straight games, three straight in Charleston and five of the last six versus EIU.

The Redbirds defeated the Panthers 21-3 in 2019, the last time the teams met. Illinois State recorded eight sacks and held Eastern to just 197 yards of offense in that game. Moreover, the Panthers converted just one third down in 16 attempts.

ISU leads the all-time series 57-42-9. The series dates back to 1901 and is the oldest FCS series in the state. In addition, the rivalry is tied for the 15th most-played series among current FCS programs; it’s No. 1 for teams from different conferences.

“I’m new to it (the rivalry), but certainly the guys around here know about it,” third-year EIU head coach Adam Cushing said. “One of my favorite things about college football is playing for those trophies and having those traditions.

“We went through the history of it this morning (Tuesday). We’re talking to the guys about it. That’s fun. You go back to your high school football playing days when you’ve got those intense rivalries with the guys down the street. It’s the same deal; these are the guys down the street.”

Illinois State head coach Brock Spack also views the rivalry in much the same vein as his Charleston counterpart.

“This is a rivalry game, a big game,” Spack told The Pantagraph. “You’ve got to assume you’re going to get your opponent’s very best in these games and we expect that.”

Saturday’s game will mark the final tuneup for both teams before each begins conference action the following weekend when EIU travels to Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley) and ISU is at Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley).

A Redbirds’ eye view

Illinois State enters the game with a 1-1 record. The Redbirds shellacked Butler 49-7 in their season opener; ISU was shut out 28-0 at FBS Western Michigan last Saturday. It marked the first time since 2012 that the Redbirds did not score in a game.

Brock Spack

Should ISU win Saturday, Spack will become the program’s all-time winningest head coach. Spack, a Rockford native, was an EIU assistant under Bob Spoo from 1987-90.

“They’re extremely well-coached,” Cushing said of ISU. “The first thing I always turn on (video of) is special teams. You look at those guys and they play hard and they play really, really disciplined. That is the character of your football team, special teams. When you’re playing really hard and you’re disciplined, that’s what the whole team is going to be.”

The Redbirds are led by dual threat quarterback Bryce Jefferson and a running back group that has essentially shared the workload thus far.

Illinois State features a talented young group on defense paced by linebackers Kenton Wilhoit, Shannon Reid and Zeke Vandenburgh.

The Panthers’ den

Eastern, meanwhile, has stumbled out of the gate. The Panthers are off to an 0-3 start for the four straight season.

EIU lost its opener at Indiana State 26-21, fell 46-0 at FBS South Carolina and was defeated at Dayton 17-10.

“I’m more tired of saying it than Panther fans are from hearing it, but we didn’t get the job done,” Cushing said. “The bottom line is they out-teamed us. Dayton is a really good football team that did the things that winners do and we didn’t. We didn’t take care of the football and we didn’t take it away.”

In three games this season, EIU has committed seven turnovers and forced just one. The Panthers have yet to intercept an opposing quarterback. Eastern has only one sack on the season.

The Panthers have been hit hard by injuries with several players missing time, including quarterback Otto Kuhns. In addition, running back Jaelin Benefield and receiver Isaiah Hill — both expected to be key cogs — have not played this fall.

“You play quarterback, you play any position, but especially quarterback be ready to feel good at the end of December when you play this game,” Cushing said.

Where to find the game

Saturday’s 6 p.m. game with Eastern Illinois hosting Illinois State can be found on several media outlets including ESPN+, WJBC1230 AM & 102.1 FM (ISU radio) & Mix 88.9 FM (EIU radio) as well as online streaming http://www.weiu.net/hitmix/streaming.php

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