CHARLESTON – No one involved in Eastern Illinois’ offense is hiding from the reality of the first two games.
They haven’t been very effective to date in accomplishing an offense’s primary goal.
"Obviously, we have to score more points as an offense,” quarterback Johnathan Brantley said. “Whatever we have to do to get that done, that’s my focus right now.”
EIU has 10 points through two games. Its 116 total yards against Indiana were the second-lowest in program history. Its two-game average of 3.5 yards per play is unsightly. Offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski was only half-joking when he said Wednesday that he hopes there is “nothing but bad articles” about the offense’s production, or lack thereof. At its current output, the offense isn’t doing enough to help EIU win.
“It comes down to executing,” Brantley said. “I feel like we haven’t executed like we can.”
No one is down on the unit’s capabilities, though. Those lowly numbers are real, but are not threatening to tear everything apart. Confidence is still as high as it was entering the year. There are 10 games left, an entire conference season to go and no more Big Ten teams left to play. No more opening-game jitters.
Simply put, there’s nothing standing in the way of the Panthers’ desired results except themselves, their missteps that are, in theory, controllable and correctable.
“Continue to attack. It has to be an attack mindset,” Kuceyeski said. “The first game was feeling things out, something like seven guys playing in their first games. Second game, this is what the Big Ten looks like. Now, third game, let’s freaking roll. We’ve seen it, we’ve played the plays, played a very good defense. I think our guys have gained confidence and I don’t think it’s anything that has wavered whatsoever.”
EIU’s attack so far has resembled a slow churn, a high number of plays but few that have gained chunk yardage – and a few missed opportunities. That’s a tricky needle to thread. It’s displaying urgency like they’re double-parked in New York City, but attempting to be a dripping faucet rather than a swift striker.
The output is a rather inefficient product: EIU’s 8.22 yards per completion ranks third-lowest in the country among teams that have attempted at least 40 passes. The Panthers have five total plays of more than 20 yards, and none longer than 31. EIU ran 90 plays in the season opener against Chattanooga, a number indicative of an offense moving at bullet-train speed. Tempo is a great weapon for a team that can rip off explosive plays, which at this point, EIU isn’t doing too often.
There’s more in the playbook to unveil. That’s a potential boost. It’s also possible EIU simply lacks all-conference playmakers like it had a year ago, but that’s not the message from the coaches. Team film sessions revealed breakdowns and missed assignments, but also plays that were there and not made as a result. The framework of chunk plays and more efficiency exists. This isn’t an instance of 11 completely overmatched players who aren’t executing anything or can’t win any 1-on-1 reps. Instead, there’s one breakdown here or there that thwarts the potential gain. The task at hand is reducing those.
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“Guys don’t disbelieve that we’re going to be good or are really good because they’re seeing proof (on film),” Kuceyeski said. “But the fact of the matter is it hasn’t been strung together for a full game.”
Kuceyeski pointed to the three “shot plays” EIU called in the first half against Indiana that were wide open, big gains or touchdowns in the making that never came to fruition because of a one-man or two-man breakdown. The same theme arose on defense, where multiple blown coverages led to Indiana receivers running free and missed tackles resulted in shorter plays turning into chunk yardage.
Fixable in theory, but easier said than actually accomplished.
“No matter what play call I make – if I call inside zone and we block it right and the running back makes one guy miss, it should be a touchdown in theory if everybody does their job,” Kuceyeski said. “So at this point, it’s us as coaches making sure guys do their job. Know what they need to do and teach them how to do it.”
Added head coach Adam Cushing: “It’s our job as coaches to make them understand how easy the fixes are.”
That’s why Kuceyeski, Cushing and everyone else on staff is here. They’re supposed to be better than the prior staff at helping players learn how to execute, understand assignments and do their jobs.
“I think as much as our players trust their skill set, we trust ourselves as coaches,” Kuceyeski said.
Everything comes back to them, and in many ways, they’re still learning too. Cushing has coached two games in his career. Kuceyeski has called plays for two games. They’re growing while an offense with nine new starters grows. It’s a unique pairing, and one that will endure some bumps together. Some have already happened. Some are surely to come. Not that growing pains are a free pass for more games like the first two, though.
“We’re all learning, but we’re all ready,” Brantley said. “I’m pretty confident that starting this week, we’re going to get it done.”
PHOTOS: Eastern Illinois football