EIU must address disappointing offense as season enters final phase

If Eastern Illinois is to post another win this season, the Panther offense needs to produce. (photo courtesy EIU Athletics)

As Eastern Illinois enters the final stretch of its fall season, the Panthers continue to look for answers on offense.

EIU has lost three straight games and stands at 1-7 overall and 1-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Panthers were shut out 28-0 at home last weekend by Tennessee State. Moreover, Eastern has averaged just 7.6 points per game in its current losing streak.

The Panthers have converted only 22 percent of their third downs. Meanwhile, EIU is successful 52 percent on fourth downs. It should be noted that the fourth down plays are usually shorter yardage than the third down attempts.

Eastern turned the ball over four times — three by interceptions —  in its loss to Tennessee State.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said during Tuesday’s OVC media address. “The thing that is getting us beat is turnovers. We’re giving them (opponents) the ball because our defense is playing capably.

“We’re putting our team in bad spots by just not having the ball often enough, not sustaining drives well . . . It’s not uncommon with a young football team, but that’s just an excuse that doesn’t matter.”

EIU quarterbacks have averaged just over 11 yards per completion. The Panthers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio stands at 6-to-11.

Eastern produced just two plays of more than 15 yards in the loss to TSU — a 35-yard run by Jaelin Benefield and a 31-yard pass to Anthony Manaves.

Jaelin Benefield

After the first quarter, Eastern had no runs of double-digit yardage. Following the long pass to Manaves in the second quarter, the Panthers biggest completion came late in the fourth quarter when Cooper Willman caught a 15-yard pass from backup quarterback Chris Katrenick.

Freshman Otto Kuhns has been the primary starter when not out with injury. Kuhns has completed only 47.2 percent of his passes. Katrenick, a transfer from Duke, has completed 45.5 percent of his throws. Freshman QB Zach Weir has also seen limited action.

Freshman Harrison Bey-Buie leads the Panthers with 381 rushing yards. EIU has just six rushing touchdowns on the season. Additionally, Eastern has just nine receptions out of the backfield this fall.

The Panthers did get some encouraging news with the return of Benefield to the backfield. Benefield, sidelined by injuries this fall, made his season debut against Tennessee State. The sophomore led EIU in rushing against the Tigers with 56 yards on nine carries. Benefield was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 402 yards in 2019.

Scouting Southeast Missouri

Saturday’s OVC opponent is Southeast Missouri State. The Redhawks have lost two straight non-OVC games to Murray State and UT Martin; SEMO is 2-6 overall, 2-1 in the OVC.

Saturday marks the 29th matchup between the two schools, which are just over 200 miles apart. EIU holds an 18-10 advantage in the all-time series. The Redhawks, however, won each of their last three games against the Panthers. SEMO throttled EIU 47-7 in Charleston in the spring season.

SEMO running back Geno Hess has 12 rushing touchdowns through eight starts this season and is seven away from Southeast Missouri’s all-time single-season record with three games remaining. The Peoria native ran for 137 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries last weekend at UT Martin, his third-straight 100-yard rushing game and fifth this season.

“Obviously Geno is going to take plenty of our attention,” Cushing chuckled. “We’ve got to do a great job of knowing where he is. They do a great job of running the ball. They’re simple and sound up front. As an o-line coach, I love watching guys that block it well. He’s the type of back that if there’s four blocks there, he’s getting more than four (yards). He’s going to get double that and sometimes make it an explosive (play).”

Starter CJ Ogbonna and backup Jalyn Williams have been splitting time at quarterback. Williams completed 2-of-4 passes and ran for eight yards, while Ogbonna completed 13-of-24 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns at UT Martin. Southeast Missouri has used multiple quarterbacks in six of eight games this season.

Southeast Missouri leads the Ohio Valley Conference in kickoff returns (23.4 ypr), punting (38.5 ypp), fourth-down conversions (6-of-11, 54.5 pct.), turnover margin (+6), red zone offense (26-of-26, 1.000) and onside kicks (2-of-2).

News & notes

A week after hosting its own Homecoming game, Eastern will provide the opponent for Southeast Missouri’s Homecoming . . . As things stand, EIU has a turnover margin of -4. The Panthers have thrown 11 interceptions while gaining only three. However, the Eastern defense has forced 15 fumbles and recovered eight. EIU has fumbled seven times on offense, losing four . . . Eastern has surrendered 57 points off turnovers, while scoring 29 points off opponents’ miscues . . . Defensive end Jordan Miles leads the OVC with 10.5 tackles for loss. The freshman needs five tackles for loss in the Panthers final three games to crack the EIU single season Top 10 list . . . A transfer has started at quarterback in all seven of Southeast Missouri’s season-opening games under head coach Tom Matukewicz. 

Where to find the game

Eastern Illinois at Southeast Missouri kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. The game is on ESPN3. The radio broadcast is offered on Charleston-based Hit Mix 88.9 FM.

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