By George, Eastern Illinois hosts Heisman Trophy winner-coached Tennessee State for Homecoming

Eastern Illinois freshman Harrison Bey-Buie is the Panthers’ second-leading rusher this season. He had 99 rushing yards against UT-Martin. (photo courtesy Sandy King/EIU Athletics)

Eddie George has never been to Charleston, but when the Heisman Trophy winner and former All-Pro running back visits Eastern Illinois University Saturday he’ll recognize some familiar names.

“I know Tony (Romo) extremely well. I’m very familiar with him and Sean Payton,” said the first-year Tennessee State head coach during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media address. “Sean was on (the Dallas Cowboys) staff when I was there (in 2004). Tony was the third-string quarterback at the time.”

Moreover, when George turns around Saturday at O’Brien Field he will see the retired jerseys of Payton and Romo hanging on the wall behind the visiting stands.

“That will be fun,” George said.

On game day, George will bring in his Tennessee State (3-3, 1-1) Tigers to town to battle Adam Cushing’s Eastern Illinois Panthers (1-6, 1-1) in an OVC matchup.

Tennessee State has won two straight games.

More memories

George spent nine years in the NFL following his 1995 Heisman-winning season at Ohio State. Though remembered for his years with the Tennessee Titans, George played his last pro season in Dallas.

Eddie George

“I remember Tony being at his locker reading leadership books from Phil Knight, Michael Jordan, all these great CEOS and thinking ‘this dude is going to be something some day. I don’t know how talented he is, but he’s going to make a great CEO, a great leader,'” George said. “He had that charisma about him. He always had that aura about him, that sense of self-confidence. You just knew he was special. And what he turned into was a phenomenal quarterback for the Cowboys and an even better commentator on CBS.”

As for Payton, then a Dallas assistant under Bill Parcells, George saw a bright future for the former EIU star quarterback who would one day lead the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl title.

“Sean was talented,” George said. “I love Sean . . . smart, gritty guy. Understands football. Very demanding. It was hard to believe I was actually coached by Payton (laughs) in my career. He’s just a wonderful guy to work with.

“Eastern Illinois had a great tradition of quarterbacks, great players. I just hope that tradition doesn’t continue this weekend,” George chuckled.

Returning Panthers

EIU enters Saturday’s Homecoming game having lost two consecutive games. The Panthers, however, did welcome the return of several key pieces to their offense in last weekend’s 28-17 setback to conference-leading UT-Martin.

Freshman Otto Kuhns started at quarterback following being sidelined with an injury. In addition, EIU got Isaiah Hill, Tyler Hamilton and Xander Richards back into the receiver rotation.

“We did everything we could to get Isaiah and all those other guys some practice reps and back in the flow, but it’s different on Satudays,” Cushing said.

Hill, who missed the spring season along with the first six fall games with injuries, caught two passes for 19 yards against UT-Martin.

“They all have that growth mindset,” Cushing said of the returning players. “Pretty exciting to have those guys back on the field and pretty exciting for this past game to be hopefully the worst game they play. They’re just going to keep on getting better.”

Spring into fall

A look back reveals a heart-breaking EIU loss to TSU March 14 in Nashville.

The Tigers pulled out a 21-20 win when Antonio Zita kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired.

The fourth quarter featured several dramatic kicking moments as EIU held a 17-15 lead with 4:10 left in the game. 

Zita, who had previously connected from 51-yards for TSU, made a 62-yard field to give TSU an 18-17 lead. The 62-yarder tied the OVC record for the longest field goal and was one yard shy of the FCS record.

“The focus is on the here and now,” Cushing said. “We’ve got our hands full with this crew and hopefully their kicker doesn’t kick a 300-yard field goal followed by a 200-yard field goal.”

News & notes

According to EIU Associate Athletic Director Rich Moser, George will be the second Heisman Trophy winner to coach at O’Brien Field. Pat Sullivan, the 1971 winner, was the head coach for Samford University, a former member of the Ohio Valley. Sullivan coached at O’Brien in 2007 . . . This marks the 25th all-time meeting between the teams. The teams have split the last four meetings, with the visiting team winning three of those four contests . . . EIU linebacker Jason Johnson leads the OVC and ranks 12th nationally in tackles/game (10.0) . . . The Panthers lead the OVC and rank sixth nationally in pass defense (158.7 yards/game) and is second in the OVC in total defense (337.4 yards/game allowed) . . . This game marks EIU’s 103rd Homecoming Game and the first since the 2019 season as the Panthers had their 2020 Homecoming Game canceled due to COVID-19. It was just the third time that EIU has not played a Homecoming Game (missed in 1918 and 1943). EIU’s first Homecoming Game was a 52-6 win over Shurtleff College in 1915.

Where to find the game

Tennessee State at Eastern Illinois kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16. The game is on ESPN-Plus. The radio broadcast is offered on Charleston-based Hit Mix 88.9 FM.

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