Eastern Illinois’ first game against a ranked opponent is also its first home game of the year.
It’s also the Panthers’ rivalry game.
No. 13 Illinois State comes to O’Brien Field Saturday to play EIU (2 p.m., ESPN+) in the 108th Mid-America Classic. Here are five things to know about the Redbirds, who are 1-1 in 2019 under 11th-year head coach and former EIU assistant Brock Spack.
Hard to read
Expectations for ISU entering the season were high enough to place the Redbirds in the top 15 of the STATS FCS preseason top 25 poll. Two straight 6-5 seasons were a disappointment relative to expectations, but they had little effect on the consensus preseason outlook for this year’s team. ISU brought back 16 starters and had seven preseason all-conference honorees. They’re a year older and still a skilled group after finishing in the top 30 in scoring offense and defense. That was the thought, at least.
Through two games, it’s hard to confidently tell just yet if that idea holds up well. ISU has played an FBS opponent and Pioneer League opponent. Neither is a great gauge. The Redbirds were tied with Northern Illinois at halftime and lost 24-10, hardly a terrible result for an FBS game. Then they smacked non-scholarship Morehead State 42-14.
Against competition more at its level, though, is ISU closer to team that 353 rushing yards against Morehead State or the one that mustered just 56 yards on 27 carries (excluding sacks) against NIU? Is it worthy of the summer hype it continues to receive, or is it more like the team that lost four straight last year after a 5-1 start? This game should help provide an answer.
Early passing struggles
Brady Davis is a sixth-year senior in his second season as the Redbirds’ starter after transferring from Memphis. He seized the starting job last season and tossed 19 touchdowns, five of which came in the 2018 blowout of EIU.
In 2019, though, he’s 22-for-54 with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He threw five picks all of last season. ISU’s offense did little against NIU and torched Morehead State, but Davis has completed less than half his passes in both games. He was just 8-for-22 against Morehead State, though he helped himself with nine carries for 89 yards and a rushing touchdown.
ISU’s rushing offense was its strength a year ago and might be again this year. But Davis has played below the level needed of him and below what he did a year ago.
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Robinson the ringleader
ISU boasts the leading rusher in the Missouri Valley from 2018, James Robinson, who ran for 1,290 yards. He’s off to similarly impressive start this year, with 194 yards and three touchdowns.
Spack bragged about the depth behind Robinson during fall camp. He feels he has six capable running backs, with Robinson as the top one and former Iowa State Cyclone Jeff Proctor behind him. They’re aided by an offensive line that returned four starters and brought in Illinois transfer Adam Solomon.
Proctor is known for his speed and has 72 yards through two games. Redshirt freshmen Kevin Brown is the No. 3 back, but has not yet played this season due to injury.
Banged-up offensive line
One of those four returning starters up front, left guard Gabe Megginson, appears likely to miss his second straight game Saturday. Megginson, a former Illinois guard, has a back issue that forced him to miss the Morehead State game and sit out practice this week. Junior Trey Georgie started in his place.
ISU has six quarterback takedowns this year, and they’ve come from a wide cast of characters. Linebacker Tuvone Clark had a sack and an interception against NIU. Defensive end Romeo McKnight has a team-high 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. All told, ISU has 13 tackles for loss, and seven of them came against NIU.
Neither Clark nor McKnight was preseason all-conference selections, but both were two of the top five returning tacklers. One of ISU’s two first-team honorees, safety Luther Kirk, has a team-high 13 tackles and broke up two passes against NIU.
PHOTOS: Eastern Illinois football