CHARLESTON — A week after being held to 117 yards total, Eastern Illinois had 251 yards at halftime and the Panthers’ defense held Southeast Missouri State scoreless.
Still, the score was only 12-0 and the Redhawks made things interesting in the second half, along with the help of a couple of miscues by EIU.
All of it led to a do-or-die moment for SEMO with 23 seconds left and EIU clinging to a three-point lead. With SEMO at the EIU 16-yard line, Redhawk quarterback Jesse Hosket went for the end zone. EIU senior safety Bradley Dewberry, who is also a team captain, jumped the route and intercepted the pass to seal the Panther’s 19-16 win to open Ohio Valley Conference play.
The win comes after a rough two-week stretch for EIU that saw the Panthers drop lopsided losses to Northern Illinois and Illinois State, so EIU coach Kim Dameron was relieved after the game to get the victory.
“I can’t say enough for how we practiced, how we competed. We didn’t do everything right, we weren’t perfect, but I will take one anyway I can get one, especially in the league.” Dameron said. “I know (SEMO) has had their struggles, we’ve had our struggles, but our kids found a way tonight to get it done. … I was proud of the way we played. Obviously I would’ve liked more production, and we had a long play again called back by a penalty and continue to shoot ourselves in the foot. But we were able to overcome it."
EIU improves to 2-2 with the win and starts OVC play with a 1-0 record. Dameron said the team had its best week of practice coming into the first OVC game of the season.
“Once we got past those three (first games), we said we are in conference play, we went to work,” Dameron said. “These kids really worked hard the past week. We had to change some things.”
EIU's defense came through in a few critical times, but Dewberry’s was the biggest since it saved a game-winning touchdown.
“I just looked in the backfield and figured they were passing. I seen a man coming straight at me and he tried breaking it off on the inside,” Dewberry said. “So I just tried to play the technique the coaches teach us and I ran with him. I saw the throw and tried to undercut it and it was just right there.”
Those are the types of solid plays that Dameron is used to seeing out of his senior safety, who became a starter as a true freshman.
“He’s got great ball skills and he’s savvy and when there’s somebody in the middle of the field, that’s the guy we want to be in the middle of the field if we can,” Dameron said. “He read the quarterback’s eyes and played it just like you would see it played on Sunday. … As soon as the ball is thrown, my eyes immediately go downfield and I was extremely excited to see (Dewberry) step in front of it. It was a fantastic play.”
SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz said quarterback Hosket shouldn’t have thrown that ball.
“Everybody wants to win so bad that he was trying to win us a football game, but at the end of the day, we left a field goal on the table that could’ve taken us into overtime,” Matukewicz said. “It’s hard. You’ve got to lay off of that if it’s covered and throw it away. It’s always hindsight, so we’ll watch the film and just see what it looked like.”
The win was also the first with redshirt freshman Scotty Gilkey Jr. under center. Gilkey Jr. rotated with Mitch Kimble in the second half of last week’s game, and an injury forced Kimble to miss Saturday’s game, forcing Gilkey Jr. into his first career start.
The redshirt freshman responded. He was 9-of-20 passing for 142 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and he rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
"I was pleased with how he ran the offense, and I was also pleased with the amount of confidence that the offensive players had in him,” Dameron said. “They didn’t go into this game thinking, oh gosh. They went into the game and knew what Scotty is going to do. He is going to compete, let’s all go compete with him and make sure we step our game up.”
The offense has struggled for a good portion of the season, but the Panthers put together a solid first drive to start the game. EIU went 87 yards in 17 plays and Gilkey scored on a 1-yard plunge. After only converting 14 third downs this whole season, the Panthers were 4-for-4 on third down in the opening drive.
“Believe me, it was nice (medicine) for a wound,” Dameron said. “I was very glad to see it and the fact that we went down the field and scored and drew first blood and all of that stuff, it really gave our whole football team confidence.”
EIU’s second touchdown of the first half actually wasn’t its second touchdown. With the Panthers at their own 17, EIU ran a double reverse flea flicker and Gilkey Jr. went deep for James Sheehan, who caught the 50-50 ball. He then ran about 50 yards for an 83-yard score, but it was called back due to an illegal man downfield.
EIU then converted third-and-13 and drove down the length of the field again. On third-and-11 at the SEMO 32, Gilkey threw a ball down the left sideline toward the end zone. SEMO covered it well, but Alexander Hollins came down with the 32-yard touchdown reception for a 12-0 lead.
Dameron said it was a big bounce back from the offense after having a touchdown called back.
“I can’t remember how the drive went, but it was a heck of a drive,” Dameron said. “Most of the time when you do that, the defense is all cranked up and you have to punt and sometimes you turn it over because you are deflated. Our kids showed great resiliency.”
The Redhawks drove down the field to end the first half, but EIU redshirt freshman Mark Williams ended the drive with an interception at the 6-yard line with 6 seconds left before the half.
“Mark’s interception, the guy was grabbing him and trying to throw it to the ground and he catches it one-handed I think,” Dameron said. “That was a fantastic play by Mark. He’s really a good player. A redshirt freshman and he locks people down and makes plays on the ball. I am glad I have him for a few more years.”
SEMO cut the score in half with a 5-yard touchdown run by Marquis Terry, and it remained a six-point contest until early in the fourth quarter.
Gilkey threw another deep pass, this one down the right sideline, and Hollins outran his man for an easy 38-yard touchdown reception to make it 19-9 with 11:19 left.
Hollins finished with seven receptions for 118 yards and two scores.
“He’s a receiver that has a really good skill set. He can run and can catch the ball, he understands body position and he is able to catch the ball around people,” Dameron said. “He had kind of felt his way for three weeks and it felt like tonight he finally showed up and played the way we felt he could play.”
SEMO came right back with a 93-yard kickoff return by Cameron Sanders to make it 19-16.
“Obviously we don’t want to give up a long kickoff return for a touchdown,” Dameron said. “That was something we have to continue to work on and shore up. We’ve been pretty good so far this year and that was unexpected.”
EIU’s offense didn’t do much for the rest of the game with two three-and-outs, but the Panthers’ defense did what it could to keep SEMO out of the end zone. SEMO drove to the EIU 32-yard line, but the Panthers forced a punt. Then on the next Redhawks drive, Dewberry came up with the game-winning interception.
The Panthers came up with three big turnovers in the game and held SEMO to 4-for-16 on third down.
“The offense helped us a lot and put us in good positions. They do their job, we do our job and we rely on each other to move the ball and get the ball back,” Dewberry said. “The way the coaches prepared us this week and (were) giving us their tendencies, we had a good idea of what they were going to do and to be in a good position to make the play.”