NASHVILLE — Eastern Illinois got chance after chance after chance to either pull away from No. 24 Tennessee State or to win the game against the Tigers. The Panthers couldn’t finish the game in regulation.
However, the Tigers failed to take advantage of their own opportunities throughout the game, which forced overtime for the second time in two years between the two teams.
The two teams traded field goals in the first overtime, and then TSU took a 16-13 lead in the second overtime. But the Tigers were called for a pass interference penalty on EIU’s double-overtime possession to put the ball at the two.
It took three tries, but EIU found the end zone as quarterback Scotty Gilkey Jr. dove over the line and stretched the ball until he broke the plane of the goal line. The play had to be reviewed and it was confirmed: it was the game-winning score as EIU won the Ohio Valley Conference game 19-16.
“These kids found a way to win. It seemed like we were almost trying to give it away at some point,” EIU coach Kim Dameron said. “That was a slugfest and every opportunity that you got, it was so important to take advantage of and we left some out there. But again, probably so did they. We found a way to get it done at the end.”
Tennessee State falls to 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the OVC. EIU improves to 3-2 and starts OVC play with a 2-0 record.
“That (OVC record) is very important and we still have a lot to work on,” said EIU linebacker Nick Horne, who had an interception in the game. “That game right there, it was a fight. That’s what coach told us, it would be a fight. Every time I’ve played them it’s been a fight and come down to the last play.”
The defense helped EIU keep the lead for most of the game and kept the Panthers in the game in overtime. EIU allowed 278 yards in the contest and forced three turnovers — one interception and three fumbles.
“As a defense, today’s game was everybody focus on their own job and if everybody does their job, we are going to come out with the win,” Horne said. “We are never going to back down as a defense. With the ball inside the 30-yard line, we call that the dead zone. We emphasize that in practice and we won’t let you get a yard. If you score, you have to work for it because we are going to give it our all.”
Just like the game, the final series of plays were a bit wild. EIU had it fourth and 2 at TSU's 5-yard line, and instead of going for a tying field goal, Dameron decided to go for the win. Instead of the snap going to Gilkey, it was a direct snap to running back Darshon McCullough, who fumbled it. Gilkey took off toward the end zone and McCullough lateraled the ball back to Aaron Gooch, who threw a pass intended for Gilkey. Gilkey jumped for it and was undercut by a TSU defensive player, who was called for pass interference.
“It was designed to be a reverse, pass, throw back to the quarterback,” Dameron said. “Gooch knew he was supposed to throw it, but that’s not exactly how we drew it up.”
That set the ball at the 2-yard line, and EIU later scored to win the game.
Dameron could’ve sent out either Nick Wilson or Matt Severino to tie the game, but he elected to go for it. He faced the same decision in the first overtime with EIU facing fourth and 10 at the TSU 25-yard line. The Panthers almost went for it when Dameron called a last-second timeout. He then sent Severino for his first career field goal attempt. Severino’s kick was good to make it a 13-10 game at the time.
“I will be honest with you, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do and I almost went for it because I didn’t think that either guy that we had could kick it that far,” Dameron said. “At the end of the day, I had to give him a chance. We ran him out there and gave him a chance and he came through.”
EIU had the potential for a game-winning play or field goal in regulation after getting the ball back with 16 seconds left at the TSU 33. Gilkey took three straight attempts at the end zone and all fell incomplete. The Panthers had a timeout remaining and could’ve tried to set up for a game-winning field goal, but they elected for the shots in the end zone.
“I didn’t think we could kick it that far, and I knew we had to get in so close to kick a field goal because we haven’t been able to,” Dameron said. “I was just basically playing to hopefully get in closer. Playing to our defense. I didn’t want to go out there and have it come out low and get blocked and returned for a touchdown to win the game. All of those were things I was trying to calculate.”
After Severino kicked the field goal to go up 13-10, Lane Clark added a 46-yard field goal to send the game to a second overtime.
Clark hit a 40-yard field goal to go up 16-13 before EIU went on to win the game by three points.
“They didn’t get down, the sideline was great, the energy was great. They never thought we were out of it, they thought we were going to win it,” Dameron said.