Despite rugged start, EIU plays for first place in conference matchup with No. 16 UT-Martin

Defensive lineman Tim Varga (97) is tied for the OVC lead for sacks at 3.5 with teammate Jordan Miles. (photo courtesy

After playing four of its first five games on the road, Eastern Illinois begins a two-game homestand with Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference matchup against nationally ranked UT-Martin.

EIU — coming off its bye week — is 1-5 overall but 1-0 in the OVC.

UT Martin, 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the OVC as well, is ranked No. 16 in this week’s STATS Perform FCS poll. The Skyhawks have won four straight games.

“For as many things that haven’t gone great (this season), it’s still a battle for first place (in the OVC),” third-year EIU head coach Adam Cushing said during Tuesday’s OVC media address.

“They’re (UT-Martin) certainly, right now, the best in our conference and to be the best you have to play the best, and we’re excited for the challenge,” Cushing said.

Moreover, Cushing is delighted to be at O’Brien Field for the matchup.

“We’ve only had one home game, so it’s going to be pretty fun to be playing back here at home. The guys are excited for that,” Cushing said.

“We’re not talking about two (home games) in a row right now, we’re just talking about playing one at home,” Cushing said. “It’s different when you get to have your whole squad on the sideline, feeding off that energy.”

The Panthers certainly did feed off that energy in their lone home game to date — a 31-24 loss to rival Illinois State Sept. 18 — in which their sideline was animated for much of the game.

Kicking competition update

Last week Cushing discussed an open competition to determine EIU’s kicker for UT-Martin. Sophomore Stone Galloway has missed his last three attempts and has only made 2-of-6 tries this season.

Stone Galloway

Freshmen William Orth and Julian Patino are also listed as kickers on Eastern’s roster. Finland native Daniel Luoma handles kickoff duties.

“It’s going to be on-going,” Cushing said of the competition. “Certainly we’re going to keep on pushing it. We had another competition today (Tuesday) and Stone came out on top, and that’s where it’s continued to be . . . if we played today it would be Stone, but we’re going to continue on competing all the way to game day.”

Hall of Fame Weekend

Saturday’s game will include the introduction of EIU’s Hall of Fame clases from 2020 and 2021.

The 2020 class includes former EIU running back Vincent Webb and receiver Adam Drake. It also includes former athletic director R.C. Johnson, who helped to bring lights to O’Brien Field.

Other 2020 members are Chandra Golden (track) and Olivia Klaus (cross country & track).

The Class of 2021 is Amber May (softball), Reynae Hutchinson (softball & volleyball), Todd Moroney (cross country & track), Devon
Bissell (women’s soccer) and Betty Ralston (volleyball coach & administrator).

News & notes

Questions remain about the health of several Panthers, including quarterback Otto Kuhns, running back Jaelin Benefield and receivers DeWayne Cooks, Tyler Hamilton, Isaiah Hill and Tyler Ringwood . . . linebacker Jason Johnson leads the OVC in tackles with 57, including 33 solo tackles and five tackles for loss. His season high was a 16-tackle performance in the road win at Tennessee Tech. Johnson, a Rich Central High School graduate, ranks 23rd in the FCS in total tackles . . . EIU’s defense forced three turnovers in its most recent game (at Murray State); the Panthers now have nine turnovers gained this season to rank 37th in the FCS . . . Saturday’s contest marks the 27th meeting between the two programs with Eastern Illinois holding a 15-11 advantage in the series. UT-Martin has won four of the last five meetings with the lone setback coming in the Skyhawks’ last visit to O’Brien Field in which the squad dropped a 24-21 overtime decision.

Where to find the game

UT-Martin (4-1, 1-0) at Eastern Illinois (1-5, 1-0) kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16. The game is on ESPN3. The radio broadcast is offered on Charleston-based Hit Mix 88.9 FM.

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