Bye week comes at the right time for EIU Panthers

Eastern Illinois quarterback Chris Katrenick (9) looks downfield in the Panthers’ 22-6 loss at Murray State. (photo courtesy goracers.com)

If third-year Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing could choose his team’s bye week each, this is the perfect time.

“I like it right in the middle (of the season) if at all possible because there’s just such a grind,” Cushing said during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media address. “When you add preseason camp onto it, these guys haven’t had a chance to just take a deep breath in quite awhile.”

Cushing and his staff provided such a break following EIU’s 22-6 loss at Murray State Saturday. The team gathered early Sunday morning for a weights session and then was turned loose.

“That was unusual for us, just to give the guys a chance to just watch some NFL football,” he said. “Mentally, we’ve got to get that rest and recovery this week just as much as physically because it is a heckuva grind.”

EIU is 1-5 on the season, yet is buoyed by the fact the Panthers are 1-0 in the OVC after a 28-14 win at Tennessee Tech Sept. 25.

After playing just one home game to date, Cushing’s Panthers will play consecutive games at O’Brien Field in Charleston following the open weekend. EIU will host UT-Martin (Oct. 16) and Tennessee State (Oct. 23) in OVC games.

“All the rest of our games are in conference, so we get a chance to recycle our mindset,” Cushing said.

Assessing his Panthers

“We’ve got to take this time as coaches to evaluate what type of stuff is working for us so our guys can execute with confidence,” Cushing said. “There’s a difference between getting the job done and executing with extreme confidence. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

The Panthers rank second in total defense in the OVC. Statistically, EIU leads the league in pass defense but has been vulnerable versus the run.

“Our defense has kept us in football games,” Cushing said. “We’ve got to take that next step defensively. We’ve got to make sure that we’re truly putting them in positions to execute with confidence.”

Linebackers Jason Johnson and Colin Bohanek rank first and fourth respectively in total tackles among OVC leaders.

Defensive end Jordan Miles tops the conference in tackles-for-loss, and corner back Russell Dandy was named both the OVC Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Week after forcing three turnovers against Murray State.

Jason Johnson (8) leads the OVC in total tackles. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

Offensively, Eastern ranks sixth in the seven-team league in total offense, scoring offense and rushing.

“We’re kind of a roller coaster, and right now that’s not a recipe for winning football,” Cushing said. “We’ve moved the ball pretty well in a bunch of our games, and then there have been games where we just haven’t moved it at all.”

The Panthers have also been affected by injuries to key players the likes of quarterback Otto Kuhns, running back Jaelin Benefield and receivers Isaiah Hill, DeWayne Cooks and Tyler Ringwood.

“We’ve got some positive news headed our way with some of these guys that have missed time,” Cushing said.

Special teams has been a mixed bag.

“Our coverage teams have been pretty darn good,” Cushing said. “Our punt block and return team has made some big plays, and then made some bonehead plays for us.”

Cushing is hopeful that Matt Judd, the preseason second-team all-OVC kicker returner, will soon be back in the regular lineup. The Lincoln-Way East graduate has been slowed by injuries in the season’s first half.

Kicking competition

Stone Galloway missed a 37-yard field goal attempt against Murray State. The sophomore has missed his last three attempts and has only made 2-of-6 tries this season.

“We’ve got to be better at making our field goals,” Cushing said. “We’ve got to have that be part of our team for consistency.”

Cushing talked with Galloway earlier this week.

“I’ve got supreme confidence in you; I just think that maybe you don’t have confidence in yourself,” Cushing told Galloway.

“We’re going to have incredible competition this week, that is for sure,” Cushing told the media. “That’s the first thing we’re going to do tomorrow (Wednesday). I learned a fun drill from our previous special teams coordinator Benny Boyd (now at FBS Wyoming) called ‘Chase the Kicker.'”

The drill calls for kickers to “operate at extreme tempo” in practice.

“Both teams are trying to catch each other. Both PAT/field goal teams are just rotating like crazy getting as many kicks as we possibly can. We’ve got to put them in some pressure situations,” Cushing said. “We’ll play the guy who practices the best.”

In addition to Galloway, EIU lists freshmen William Orth and Julian Patino as kickers on its roster. Finland native Daniel Luoma handles kickoff duties.

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