This past fall Eastern Illinois rolled into Northern Illinois' Huskie Stadium and almost did the unthinkable: snap NIU's then 21-game winning streak. No one really knew much about EIU at the time, except that it was where both Sean Payton and Tony Romo lit up quarterback records. But then this quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo went toe-to-toe with the MAC's Heisman candidate, and in many ways looked better.
The game was exhilarating. Before it took place we named it the Game of the Week, but to me it was the game of the year. NIU won 43-39, but everyone paid attention to Eastern Illinois from then on, and for good reason. Now Ohio invites this dangerous squad into Peden, albeit a remarkably different looking team. Gone are the electrifying quarterback, the spectacular receiver, and the enigmatic head coach and the entire coaching staff, which is now with Bowling Green. So how will the 'Cats fare against these new look Panthers?
Eastern Illinois 2013 Rewind:
Under the tutelage of new Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers, EIU improved from a 7-5 mark in Babers' first season (2012) to a 12-2 mark in year two. With one of the most explosive offenses college football has ever seen—at any level—the Panthers seemed unstoppable except for a nail-biting loss at Northern Illinois and week three and a 49-39 loss to Towson in the FCS quarterfinals.
Along the way EIU obliterated opposing defenses. The Panthers 48.2 points per game was third overall in all of Division I (FCS & FBS), they also held opponents to less than half of that. Their 589 yards per game was second only to Baylor. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (now with the New England Patriots) threw for 5,050 yards, 53 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. One running back, Shepard Little, ran for 1,551 yards and 15 touchdowns. Another running back, Taylor Duncan, added 988 yards and 10 touchdowns. Erik Lore and Adam Drake combined for nearly 3,000 yards receiving and 32 touchdowns, and two more weren't far off. Point is: EIU was explosive.
Eastern Illinois is known as the panthers. I'll save you a Google search, there panthers are not native to Charleston, Illinois. So why the Panthers? Well, for decades the program was simply known as the "blue and Gray", but in the 1930s a competition was held to give the school an official nickname.
Harland Baird, Paul Birthisel and Thelma Brooks all submitted the name "Panthers" and won a grand prize of $5 worth of movie tickets, to be split amongst them. The Panthers are represented by a costumed panther—yeah, I'm bummed it's not a real panther either—named Billy the Panther.
With Dino Babers, and his staff, now taking up residence at Bowling Green, the Panthers are under new leadership. Former Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Kim Dameron is the new Panthers coach. It's Dameron's first stint as a head coach, and a notable change in direction from the Panther's last coaching hire, as Dameron is a defensive-focused guy.
Eastern Illinois plays in the Ohio Valley Conference with Austin Peay (whom Ohio beat in 2013). EIU has been a member of this FCS level conference since 1996. The Panthers have never appeared in a bowl game, but have appeared in the FCS playoffs 13 times since 1982, most recently advancing to the quarterfinals.
Five Key Players:
- Adam Drake, senior, wide receiver
- Taylor Duncan, running back, senior
- Sheppard Little, running back, junior
- Colin Seibert, offensive guard, senior
- Jourdan Wickliffe, free safety, junior
Despite losing Jimmy Garoppolo and Erik Lora, EIU actually return most of its offense. both Duncan and Little are back. As are three of the team's top four receivers from 2013. The offensive line returns some heft and experience, including All-OVC guard Colin Seibert. There's no shortage of weapons on this offense, which even without former Missouri wideout Dorial Green-Beckham on roster, as was once rumored, the Panthers have a physically intimidating batch of receivers.
The question is, who will throw to them? Garoppolo is gone. His backup from 2013, 6-foot-6 junior Ben Kroll, has attempted just 34 passes in his career. he also has some impressive competition in the former of former starting Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitow, and former New Mexico State starting quarterback Andrew Manley. Both are eligible to play. Each player has their strong suits. Whitlow is a dual-threat guy with a nice touch. Both Manley and Kroll are big pro-style quarterbacks, though Manley has starting experience from NMSU. One thing is certain, no matter who gets the job (this recent article suggests it's between Withlow and Manley, and Kroll isn't even mentioned), don't expect to see the Baylor-esque offense EIU ran last year. It'll likely be a more traditional spread attack, but still dangerous.
EIU's defense was overshadowed by its offense, but don't get it twisted, the Panthers were a good defensive squad. They held opponents to just over 20 points a game, and that's with shootouts against SIU, NIU and Towson on the schedule.
The Panthers' defense, like their offense, actually returns quite a bit. The team's leading tackler, do-everything safety Jourdan Wickliffe is back after racking up 91 tackles (3 for-loss),, breaking up eight passes, forcing four fumbles, picking off three passes, and recovering a fumble. The junior anchors a secondary that was 19th in the FCS in passer efficiency against in 2013.
Three of the team's four leading tacklers are back, including a pair of starting linebackers. But the defensive line has lost a lot, and could prove to be this team's Achilles' heel. This past season the front seven struggled somewhat against the run, allowing 170 yards per game, while allowing opposing teams just 204 yards per game through the air. The unit was also incredibly efficient in third down, fourth down and red zone situations, so if Ohio wants to strike, they'll need to chip away on the ground and loosen things up for big plays over the top.
Normally, I'm not a fan of FBS-FCS match ups. They typically provide little in the way of competition or excitement. But in this case, there's good reason to be excited about this match up if you're an Ohio fan. EIU is a good squad, who will still be trying to adjust to a new quarterback (much like Ohio) at this point. The bobcats will face quality competition in a game that won't be over by halftime, and would actually be a win to be proud of. Sure, there's some danger in that Ohio could lose, but losing to an FCS squad with the caliber of talent this EIU team has wouldn't be an embarrassment anymore than losing to Buffalo or Bowling Green was in 2013.
Ultimately, I expect this game to go all four quarters, with Ohio chipping away at the Panthers on the ground. The 'Cats have the advantage on both sides of the trenches, and have some incredible athletes/weapons of their own. Final predictions, Ohio 31 - EIU 27