CHARLESTON — The 1-2 non-conference record for the Eastern Illinois football team is in the rear view mirror, according to coach Kim Dameron. Now the Panthers are into the part of the schedule that could make or break their season as they open Ohio Valley Conference play at home Saturday against a team that is struggling just as much if not more than the Panthers, Southeast Missouri State.

"We are excited to turn the page and start OVC play," Dameron said. "It's always fun to get into the league. It's a team we have to get very prepared for this week. We've made some adjustments and are moving forward."

Even though the first three games have been rough for the Panthers, Dameron has a reason to be optimistic. Two years ago the Panthers went into OVC play with an 0-3 record after losses to Western Illinois, Northwestern and Illinois State. EIU proceeded to only drop one game in OVC play - to Jacksonville State - and qualified for the FCS playoffs with a 7-4 record.

EIU has one more win going into OVC play than that season and Dameron is telling the team to remain positive going into Saturday's game against SEMO.

"We've been exposed at things that we've got to be better at. We are going to continue to stay positive and close as a unit," Dameron said. "We always look forward and the things that we preach, we have to look at good things and the bad."

SEMO can't afford to look at EIU's struggles because the Redhawks have plenty of their own. SEMO comes in with an 0-3 record after losing to Kansas, Dayton and Southern Illinois.

"We are still at a point we were have to learn about how to not lose a game first," SEMO coach Tom Matekuwicz said. "No one cares if you are having a pity party. EIU would be glad if we are having a pity party. We just have to climb out of this thing and it would be a good story and that's how I've approached it."

Both teams are not performing in the passing game like they would like to. EIU is throwing for only 144 yards per game and SEMO is averaging 195.7 passing yards a game. EIU has also allowed 14 sacks. Both coaches said the passing problems start up front. 

"We need to block better and be more consistent up front. They have a strong front and are consistent in what they do," Dameron said. "They are a problem for our protection schemes. We have to catch better and run better routes. We have to deliver the ball better and have better footwork. We have to quit shooting ourselves in the foot in these areas. It's easy to say that, but the thing we have to continue to do is coach. We have to continue to demand excellence and make sure our kids become much more consistent."

Matukewicz also noticed a mismatch up front with his defensive line compared to EIU's offensive line.

"That's certainly an interesting matchup," Matukewicz said. "It's probably shown itself more on third down and people have been able to get back there and hit the quarterback. So we've challenged our guys and have our elite pass rushers and we've challenged them to take over the game in passing situations."

But Matukewicz has the same problem up front with his offense.

"I think it's more to do with protection," Matukewicz said. "We haven't given (quarterback Jesse Hosket) the protection this last week that we needed to and we need to come down with the big passing plays. We had a pass called back and had several issues passing. Our issues are more about protection."

Dameron has been happy with his pass defense at times, but it's been inconsistent. He's looking for that unit to limit the big plays on Saturday.

"We gave up an 80-yard play because he got cut loose and then we tried to strip the ball as he was running down the field," Dameron said. "Some of it is youth with the mistakes. We have some redshirt freshmen who are learning and have had some things that have happened that we have to continue to coach and eliminate."

EIU's game starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday in Charleston at O'Brien Field.

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