CHARLESTON—From players on Eastern Illinois 1978 Division II national champions to a Heisman Trophy winner to a 22-year NFL head coach who was a member of the ’85 Chicago Bears, there was plenty of star power on display at O’Brien Field Saturday. Unfortunately, none of it translated to the current EIU Panthers.
Visiting Tennessee State — coached by 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George — shut out EIU 28-0 to spoil the Panthers’ 103rd Homecoming.
In addition, George’s mentor and former Tennessee Titans’ head coach Jeff Fisher was on hand to watch TSU’s performance. Fisher serves as a consultant to George; Fisher’s son Brandon is the TSU defensive coordinator.
“That was a butt-whipping,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said afterward. “I feel bad with such a great turnout from the fans here at Homecoming. A bunch of guys came back. We didn’t show up and do much for them on the field. That’s the reality.”
EIU has lost three straight games and is 1-7 overall and 1-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference. TSU has won three consecutive games and is 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the OVC.
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from Saturday’s game:
- Turnovers again bite the Panthers
EIU turned the ball over four times — three by interceptions. TSU did not turn the ball over.
“You don’t win any football games when you lose the turnover ratio,” Cushing said, “especially when the interceptions lead to points.”
EIU quarterbacks have thrown 11 interceptions, but managed just three on defense this season.
Eastern squandered a chance to take a first quarter lead when freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns was intercepted by TSU’s Eddie Graham in the end zone.
Kuhns’ second interception of the first half proved even more costly when he threw the ball directly to linebacker James Green, who returned the interception 47 yards to the EIU 2-yard line where Kuhns forced him out of bounds. The Tigers scored two plays later to grab a 7-0 lead that held at halftime.
In the second half, Kuhns would throw a third interception and Kendi Young would lose a fumble.
“The highest correlation to wins and losses is points off turnovers,” Cushing said.
EIU’s opponents have scored 57 points off turnovers this season. The Panthers have scored 29 off the turnovers they’ve gained.
2. Eastern’s offensive woes continue
The Panthers managed just 46 yards of offense and only four first downs in the second half.
EIU finished the game a woeful 2-for-17 on third down, going 1-of-10 in the second half. Interestingly, the Panthers were 3-for-3 on fourth down.
Kuhns was 10-for-25 passing for 70 yards. He was replaced late in the game by transfer Chris Katrenick, who appeared to leave with an injury, and then by freshman Zach Weir (3-for-6 for 26 yards). EIU averaged just 3.3 yards per passing attempt and 7.7 yards per completion.
“We’re beating ourselves,” Cushing said. “You’ve got to play clean football to have a chance to win. Today, we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win.”
3. The lack of offense puts more pressure on the defense
After holding an edge in time of possession in the first half, Eastern’s sputtering offense produced five three-and-out possessions and two turnovers in the second half.
Thus, EIU’s defense found itself on the field much of the second half — often defending short fields.
While the Panthers did drop Tennessee State star running back Devon Starling for a 1-yard loss on a fourth-and-goal rush from inside the EIU 1 in the second quarter, Eastern couldn’t hold up to the seemingly constant Tiger attack.
Starling — held to 38 yards on 13 carries in the first half — erupted for 84 yards after halftime. Starling led all rushers with 122 yards on 25 attempts.
Cushing addressed his team at length in the locker room after the game ended.
“We’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about it. We’ve talked about it round and round. When it comes down to it, words don’t matter, action does,” Cushing summarized.
News & notes
Saturday’s attendance was listed at 6,300 . . . Eastern was shut out for the second time this season. The Panthers fell 46-0 Sept. 4 at FBS South Carolina . . . Saturday marked the first time EIU had been held scoreless on Homecoming since a 0-0 tie with Illinois State in 1966. The Panthers lost 43-0 to Northern Illinois for 1963’s Homecoming . . . TSU kicker Antonio Zita, who kicked three field goals including a 51-yarder and an OVC-record 62-yarder in a spring victory over EIU, missed three field goals (52, 54, 43) Saturday . . . Jaelin Benefield played his first game of the fall for Eastern after being sidelined by injuries. Benefield led the Panthers led EIU with 56 yards rushing . . . Nose tackle Cameron Leach was the game’s leader with nine tackles . . . The shutout was TSU’s first D1/OVC defensive blanking since 2013, a 31-0 win over Southeast Missouri. The last overall shutout was a 60-0 win over Virginia Lynchburg in 2017.
Eastern Illinois plays at Southeast Missouri State Saturday, Oct. 30 in OVC action.