DEKALB — After beating Indiana State last Thursday 22-20 to start the season 1-0, the Eastern Illinois University football team jumps up a class to face an in-state FBS opponent when the Panthers travel to Mid-American Conference member Northern Illinois University on Saturday. The Huskies lost to Boston College 23-20 to start the season last Friday.
The last time the two teams played in 2013, it was a shootout with NIU winning 43-39. The two schools have played three times since NIU moved up to the FBS level, and EIU won one of the three matchups. In 1998, EIU beat NIU and of the Panthers' six FBS wins, five have come against MAC opponents. The fifth MAC win and sixth FBS victory came last year when EIU knocked off Miami (Ohio) 21-17.
Even though EIU goes into the game against NIU with a 1-0 record, EIU head coach Kim Dameron knows the team has to play a lot better than it did when it used a last-minute drive to score with 3 seconds left to beat Indiana State.
"We are happy to be 1-0. I thought we came out and did some good things early and then in the second half, we didn't play extremely well in second," Dameron said. "There were positives to take from the game, but we've got to get better in the kicking game, stopping the run, third downs, protecting the quarterback, a lot of things if we expect to win a lot of games this year."
Northern Illinois is coming off a 5-7 season with all five wins coming in MAC play. Even though the Huskies lost to Boston College, the Golden Eagles were a bowl team last season.
"NIU played Boston College to a three-point game and played a physical game," Dameron said. "They have a quarterback-orientated style of offense which is always a challenge, and then defensively, their defense runs well. They did a good job against Boston College. We have our challenges ahead of us and we have to shore up some things."
The Huskies will be playing with a different starting quarterback against EIU, however, than against Boston College. On Friday it was announced that Ryan Graham is out for at least a couple of weeks with a sprained right elbow. Graham was 15-of-38 passing for 190 yards and two touchdowns and he ran for 99 yards.
Daniel Santacaterina reportedly battled Graham for the starting job throughout the summer before Graham won the No. 1 role for the game against Boston College. Santacaterina helped lead NIU in wins over Eastern Michigan and Kent State at the end of last season. He rushed for 91 yards against EMU and was 13-for-23 for 258 yards and an interception against Kent State.
NIU will stick with its option-style offense with Santacaterina at quarterback. Marcus Jones ran for 48 yards on 11 carries last week, giving NIU a solid option in the backfield. Wide receiver Chad Beebe caught six passes for 93 yards in the loss to Boston College.
"It's an option style with a quarterback that you have to defend, and NIU hangs their hat on that," Dameron said. "The other thing is they have quite a few weapons and a good stable of running backs that can make you miss. They have speed on the outside and their offensive line really takes control of the game. When you watch them this year against Boston College and last year, they controlled the line of scrimmage."
EIU has a new defensive coordinator this season with Cary Fowler, giving NIU coach Rod Carey only one game of film to go on to study EIU's defense. The Panthers held Indiana State to only 293 yards of total offense.
"I know they do some things a little different than Boston College," Carey said. "They are a sound defense and they fly around to the football."
Carey is quite familiar with EIU quarterback Mitch Kimble since the Huskies, along with EIU, recruited the Jerseyville native out of high school. Kimble chose Syracuse before transferring to EIU and becoming the Panthers' starting quarterback last season. Last week, Kimble was 27-of-44, passing with 202 yards and a touchdown, which was a 15-yard strike to Dennis Turner with 3 seconds left to win the game against Indiana State.
"He's a good football player," Carey said. "The one thing about their personnel is they have really good football players all over the field. It's certainly going to be a test. Last time we played them, it was a dogfight and I don't expect anything different this time."
The Panthers have to do a better job of keeping Kimble upright, though. He was sacked five times in the win against Indiana State. NIU had two sacks against Boston College.
"We have to get better at running the football — we gave up five sacks," Dameron said. "It's not all the fault of the offensive line. I know what we have to get better at, the consistency and the physicality up front and make sure they know who they have and not knocking down (Kimble)."
The game starts at 2:30 p.m. at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.