CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — The Eastern Illinois football team stuck No. 23 Southeast Missouri State on Saturday in the season finale. The Panthers outgained the Redhawks, they held the Redhawks below their season average for yards in a game, they had more first downs and they held onto the ball for almost two more minutes than SEMO.
But the margin for error against a Redhawks team that is fighting for a playoff spot was razor thin. The Panthers had two turnovers. SEMO didn't have one. The Redhawks converted two key fourth downs that led to a score. EIU had nine costly penalties, and when EIU got within 6 points with 6:52 left, the Panthers gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Those were a few of the costly mistakes for Panthers — all things that bit EIU at different times this year — as SEMO went on to win 38-32. The Panthers finished the season with a 3-8 overall record, the fewest wins in a season since 2011 when EIU went 2-9. The 3-5 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference is the first losing season in the league for the Panthers since 2011 (1-7).
"There were a lot of things in the game that we would've liked to go better. I am real proud of my kids," said EIU coach Kim Dameron, who on Sunday didn't have his contract renewed. "They went down and fought really hard. We made some mistakes. They made some mistakes, but we made more than they did."
The Panthers got off to a good start by forcing SEMO to punt on its first possession. Three plays into EIU's first drive, Johnathan Brantley hit Alexander Hollins for a 72-yard touchdown pass and the Panthers went up 7-0.
But SEMO bounced right back with a 55-yard kickoff return to the EIU 30. The Redhawks later got a 34-yard field goal by Kendrick Tiller. Brantley threw an interception on EIU's next possession, and two penalties — a pass interference call and a personal foul — put SEMO inside EIU's 20-yard line. Marquis Terry scored on an 11-yard run to put SEMO up 10-7, a lead the Redhawks never gave up.
EIU's defense held SEMO in check for most of the second quarter until the Redhawks final possession of the half. On third-and-9, Daniel Santacaterina completed a 10-yard pass to Richie Eisenhart. SEMO had it fourth-and-3 when the Redhawks had a false start. On fourth-and-8, Santacaterina hit Kristian Wilkerson for 11 yards for the first down. SEMO drove to EIU's 1-yard line. The Panthers stopped SEMO on second and third down, but on fourth down, Mark Robinson scored on a 1-yard run to put the Redhawks up 17-7 going into the half.
Tiller hit a 29-yard field goal in SEMO's first possession of the second half for a 20-7 lead. EIU responded with 14-play drive before it stalled out at the SEMO 18-yard line. Nick Bruno hit a 35-yard field goal to make it 20-10.
The Panthers then attempted an on-side kick and recovered it. A personal foul on SEMO put the Panthers in SEMO territory. Brantley ran for 32 yards to the SEMO 15-yard line, and he later scored on an 8-yard run as EIU was within 3 points, down 20-17.
EIU almost forced a three-and-out. SEMO faced third-and-14 when Santacaterina hit Austin Crump for 34 yards. Santacaterina later hit Wilkerson for a 4-yard touchdown as the Redhawks went back up by 10 early in the fourth quarter. A 29-yard pass on SEMO's next possession put the Redhawks in EIU territory and a 32-yard field goal by Tiller gave SEMO a 30-17 lead.
EIU answered with an 11-play drive that went 80 yards. Harry Woodbery came in at quarterback and ran for 19 yards on a third-and-8 early in the drive. SEMO was called for pass interference on third-and-5 later in the drive. On third-and-8 at the SEMO 20, Woodbery hit Teriq Phillips for 13 yards. On the next play, Woodbery found Hollins for his 16th touchdown of the season and EIU was down by only six at 30-24 with 6:52 left.
But SEMO quickly made it a two-score game again. Zion Custis returned the kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion put SEMO up 38-24.
EIU tried to stay alive with a drive to SEMO's 2-yard line. Isaiah Johnson was stopped for no gain on first down and then Hollins dropped a pass in the end zone. Woodbery's next two passes were incomplete as the Panthers turned the ball over on downs.
The Panthers did score again when Woodbery found Aaron Gooch for an 8-yard score, but only 34 seconds remained and SEMO ran out the clock for the win.