NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The last few games between Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State have been a dogfight. Last season EIU came away with a 35-34 victory at O'Brien Field. Two years ago the Panthers pulled out a 25-22 overtime win at Nissan Stadium. EIU coach Kim Dameron expects nothing less than a dogfight again as the Panthers travel to take on the 24th-ranked Tigers at Nissan Stadium in the John A. Merritt Classic at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
"Just like always, they have some dynamic players and they play very hard and are a very good football team," Dameron said. "We just try and be 1-0 on the week and get a conference win on the road. Our games with them have always been competitive, hard-fought games. I am sure it will be one heck of a game."
The Tigers are 3-1 on the season and lost to UT Martin to start Ohio Valley Conference play last week. EIU is 2-2 and 1-0 in the OVC.
While the scores have been tight, EIU has have a five-game winning streak against the Tigers. It's the second straight season the Panthers are playing a ranked-TSU squad and EIU has won three straight over the Tigers when they have been nationally ranked - last season and two times in 2013.
The game has a little extra shine on it since it's the 19th annual John A. Merritt Classic. EIU is the first non-historical black college team to participate in the Merritt Classic. TSU is 13-5 all-time in preview classic games, but EIU is 6-3 all-time in games played at Nissan Stadium, which is home to the Tennessee Titans.
EIU senior defensive lineman Mack Weaver is looking forward to the return trip to Nashville. He transferred to EIU from Vanderbilt University, which is located in Nashville.
"We always have a good game against TSU and it's always good to be back in the home state," Weaver said. "Last go-around in Nashville with my family, so it's going to be great. We are always like to go in and play hard against every team we play, but TSU is always a good game and great competition."
The Tigers come into the game averaging only 18.5 points per game, but they are third in the OVC with 348.5 yards per game. TSU features two dynamic wide receivers with Patrick Smith and Steven Newbold and the Tigers have three players in the top-10 in rushing in the OVC. Running back Seth Rowland has rushed for 236 yards and two touchdowns and Sabree Curtis has 178 yards rushing.
TSU ranks second in the OVC with 184.8 yards rushing a game.
"We have to contain the run game as much as possible. Their quarterback-running back combo is extremely dangerous and they have put up a ton of yards on some good teams," Dameron said. "They have some dynamic receivers on the outside and it's a scary offense. We have our work cut out for us this week and we are going to work to get better."
Even though EIU is allowing 29.5 points per game and 399.5 yards per game, TSU coach Rod Reed excepts to see a Panther defense that will push his squad.
"They are gap accountable and they get after it on defense," Reed said. "They looked good last week and it's a big, physical defense."
Florida transfer Treon Harris is TSU's starting quarterback. He was injured against UT Martin, but TSU coach Rod Reed said Harris is ready to go for this week. Harris leads the Tigers with 244 yards rushing along with three touchdowns. However, he's only completed 52.6 percent of his passes. He has thrown for 552 yards.
Weaver said the Panthers have to contain Harris.
"Honestly, we are going to be just fine against him. We've been focusing on everybody doing their job and perfecting our role," Weaver said. "Once we get to Saturday, we will be ready to stick to our roles and we will be perfectly fine. We've been studying him a lot and the offensive line a lot and looking for their weaknesses. We are ready to exploit them and ready to go to work against them."
Backup quarterback Michael Hughes has passes for 103 yards on 7-of-15 passing.
EIU has had to deal with its own quarterback injuries. Mitch Kimble will most likely miss the game, meaning redshirt freshman Scotty Gilkey Jr. will make his second straight start. Last week he rushed for 98 yards and a score and the Panthers rushed for 230 yards. He also passed for 142 yards and two scores.
TSU's defense has been stout this season and is allowing only 17.2 points per game and 269.5 yards per game. Defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko is a game-time decision according to Reed. Still, the Tigers have been efficient without the Clemson transfer.
"They always play great defense. That's one thing you know about a TSU team, they are going to be athletic and well coached," Dameron said. "With Chris Collins inside and I know Ebenezer has been in and out, but he is dynamic. They have players at every position. We are expecting to see one heck of a defense. If you look at them statistically, they dominate."
UT Martin put a dent in TSU's armor last week by scoring 24 points in the first quarter. TSU still held the Skyhawks to 240 yards, but UT Martin still put 31 points on the board in the win.
"I tell the kids all of the time that you have to do it week in and week out. We have guys watching film now to prepare," Reed said. "I expect a stellar performance from the defense and the offense is taking it personally with how UT Martin handled us. This is our first home game and that will add to it."