CHARLESTON — There was no hiding or risking that the season’s worst dud would fester during the off week.
No, Eastern Illinois players and coaches treated their first practice after their deflating 33-6 loss to Eastern Kentucky as if it were a regular week instead of leading into an open date.
“We put the game to bed like we always do on a Monday and then just stepped away from it,” coach Adam Cushing said after Wednesday’s practice. “Monday morning, let’s talk about it. We believe firmly in this program. We can look each other in the eyes and tell each other the truth.”
That truth is this: No one showed up on that rainy homecoming Saturday, and that sure revealed itself on the scoreboard and stat sheet. EIU was a garbage-time drive away from setting its program-low for yards gained. Everyone knows this and reaffirmed it. It was a group failure of players and coaches that left the Panthers at a crossroads. The second part of it? There are still three games left, still opportunities to end this skid.
“We can erase a lot of things that happened throughout the season if we continue to show that we want to get out here,” Cushing said.
Nothing will change the 0-9 start to the year or inject anything real to play for into EIU’s season beyond Nov. 23. There is, though, a matter of pride. No one wants to go 0-12. But losing streaks and the aftermath of a dusting like that last game can weaken resolve and wear down a team. EIU’s task, and it starts with the coaching staff, is to prevent apathy from imbuing to the point where it overcomes that pride and an ugly loss is met with a shrug. Mailing in the year wouldn’t exactly be indicative of Cushing’s professed progress, which is found only in limited quantities beneath the surface in a season absent of wins.
“When you’re in a tough spot, you can try and come up with all these fancy new themes or some magic pill, but in the end, you go back to what our foundation is,” Cushing said. “It says attitude and investment at the bottom of our pyramid everywhere. It’s about what we choose.”
Soul-searching aside, EIU’s best chance for a win comes this Saturday at Tennessee State (2 p.m., ESPN+). The Tigers are 2-7, with one of those wins over lowly Mississippi Valley State on opening weekend.
They are more beatable than SEMO and Austin Peay, EIU’s other two remaining opponents, but they are no rollover opponent either, though no one is for an 0-9 team. Tennessee State can sneak up on an unsuspecting adversary. Ask Austin Peay, a playoff hopeful whose only conference loss came to the Tigers on Oct. 19 when it squandered a 24-9 second-half lead by allowing 17 unanswered points.
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“They’ve also beaten some teams,” Cushing said. “They have some weapons on offense, they’re pretty good up front on defense.”
In playing Tennessee State, the primary task is dealing with wide receiver Chris Rowland, the FCS leader in receptions (89) and receiving yards (1,234). He has 218 more yards than the next closest receiver and has hauled in six touchdowns. His presence has made Tennessee State’s sudden quarterback change after Demry Croft’s August suspension seem a little less severe.
“The shorter answer is what doesn’t he bring to the field?” Cushing mused. “He does everything well.”
Defensively, Tennessee State allows an OVC-worst 470 yards per game. Its 34.6 points allowed per game ranks ahead of only Tennessee Tech. Opponents have gashed the Tigers for 213 rushing yards per game, a league-worst. They rank last defending the pass as well.
Perhaps this is the game and the opponent EIU needs to get itself going and give a freshman-laden offensive line and an essentially nonexistent running game some tangible evidence that it can move the ball. Maybe this is the game where EIU can go vertical with some frequency.
The trap here is getting too caught up in the opponent. EIU, even if it can successfully lift itself off the ground after its humbling loss and find the motivation to avoid playing out the string, isn’t entitled to a win – not even against another cellar dweller – just because they practiced well or stopped one bad game from turning into a rolling boulder of indifference that escapes Cushing and staff’s control.
“We’re not worried as much about who we’re playing,” Cushing said.
Nor should they be. Not if pride is all they have.