CHARLESTON — Apparently the word of the day for the Eastern Illinois football team was perseverance. Well, at least that's the word that EIU running back coach Ethan Hutdson tweeted on Monday.
The Panthers are at a crossroads after Saturday's 41-40 loss to Tennessee State. EIU is 0-4 and can either be steadfast in winning six or seven games yet this season despite the difficulty of it (basically the definition of perseverance) or they can go the opposite direction and consider the season a loss. Even if EIU runs the table and finishes at 7-4, the playoffs would still be a bit of a long shot.
One thing is for certain, though. The 0-4 start has taken its toll on the Panthers. Saturday's loss may have been the toughest of them all this season since EIU had a 24-3 lead at one point.
"You have to hate losing more than you like winning. This one really, really hurts. We are hurting right now," EIU wide receiver James Sheehan said after Saturday's game. "You put in exponential work through the summer and to come out 0-4, we are in a hole and our backs are literally against the wall right now. If we want to think about the postseason, we have to go undefeated. That has to be our mindset going forward. Starting 0-4 and losing a game, it's got to be worse than the enjoyment of winning a game, especially one like (Saturday)."
EIU linebacker Joe Caputo knows the team could go one of two ways. Either the team stays the course and tries to run the table. The other option involves something he really doesn't want to think about.
"The team has to come together right now. We can either split or come together," Caputo said. "If we split, it could be a really long season. We still have seven games to go and we can go 7-1 in conference. That has to be the mindset going forward. Obviously, we have some things to fix. Even if we won the game, I would've been happy that we won but at the same time, we were up 24-3 and you can't give up that lead. Obviously, we have to think things through and look at the film."
Caputo did say some of the things the team has to fix is on the defensive side of the ball.
The Panthers don't have the worst defense statistically in the Ohio Valley Conference, but it's not far off. Tennessee Tech, which is 0-4 and hosts the Panthers at 6 p.m. on Saturday, is allowing 51 points and 543 yards per game. EIU is allowing 49.8 points and 524 yards per game.
Nationally, EIU is 119th in scoring defense per game and passing defense per game (309.8), 115th in total yards per game and 91st in rushing defense per game (214.2). There are 124 teams at the FCS level.
This isn't the 'same-old, same-old' for EIU, though. EIU coach Kim Dameron is known for his defense and the Panthers have been a good defensive team in his previous four seasons. In Dameron's first two seasons at EIU, the Panthers were third in both scoring defense and total defense in both seasons. In 2016, the Panthers were third in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.
Last year the Panthers dipped to sixth in scoring defense, but the 26 points allowed were barely more than the 25.6 points they allowed in 2014 and lower than the points they allowed in 2015 and 2016. The 354.7 yards allowed per game last season was only seventh best in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, but it was the lowest total EIU allowed in the previous four seasons.
So this season's defensive performance is far from the norm under Dameron's tenure. Dameron even switched from a 4-2-5 defense that he's run during his tenure to a 3-3-5. It gave Tennessee State fits early but the Tigers were able to gash EIU for 41 points and 544 yards.
"We've been defensively strong and this is my fourth year in the same system and switching it up is a little different. ... At some point it has to be a mindset," Caputo said. "Something has to change and we thought we changed something this week and it didn't work. I don't know what the difference is. We are all giving 100 percent effort. Tackling is an issue for everybody, myself included."
To make matters worse, the Panthers could be without cornerback Mark Williams, who Dameron said has been dealing with an arm injury all season. Williams, who was a Phil Steele Freshman All-American last season, had an interception in Saturday's game but later missed a good portion of the game with that same injury.
"When he's not in the game it's always a big loss. I don't know exactly the situation is with him. When he's not in the lineup, he's just a sophomore but he played really well as a freshman," Dameron said. "He hurt his arm and he's been hurt really all year. I don't know where we are with him."
Even with Williams out there, there's plenty for the defense to fix no matter what system EIU is running and time is running out to save the season.