CHARLESTON — Austin Peay was the team that cured all of the problems for the Eastern Illinois football team. At least for one week.
For the first part of the season, EIU's defense struggled to get a stop and protect the edge in the ground game. The Governors came into the game leading the Ohio Valley Conference with 241.1 rushing yards a game, and running back Kentel Williams leads the FCS with 8.8 yards per carry.
On Saturday, EIU held Austin Peay to 188 yards rushing (78 came in the fourth quarter with the game decided already), and Williams was held to 3.2 yards per carry.
Then in the last few weeks, EIU has had trouble finishing drives and have been held under 30 points each of the last three games.
The Panthers took advantage of some short fields early in the game and were 7-of-7 in the red zone as EIU tied a season-high with 52 points.
For EIU, the mix of a strong defensive performance to go along with a potent offensive attack was a welcome sight against the Governors on Senior Day as the Panthers won 52-21 to improve to 3-7 on the season. Austin Peay fell to 4-6 overall.
"I felt like we were in control pretty much most of the game. Defensively I was really happy with our plan and how our kids executed it and the physicality that we played with," EIU coach Kim Dameron said. "Hats off to the kids, hats off to the coaches who continued to work hard even though we weren't getting a lot of results at times. The attitude of this team has been fantastic all season even though our record is not where we want it to be. We can take a lot of pride with how we finished with these seniors today."
EIU running back Isaiah Johnson set the tone early for EIU in the red zone. With 10:28 left in the first quarter, he broke free for a 10-yard touchdown run. Then late in the first quarter, he broke a tackle and scored on a 20-yard run.
Johnson finished the game with 187 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 23 carries. Johnson is a Clarksville, Tennessee, native, which is where Austin Peay is located. Johnson had an offer to go to Austin Peay coming out of Moorpark Junior College but was going to go to San Jose State. The offer to SJSU later fell through, and Austin Peay didn't have room for Johnson anymore. That's when he got the call from EIU and joined the Panthers before the 2017 season.
"With Clarksville being my hometown and Austin Peay getting us last year, you definitely want to beat the people you grew up with," Johnson said. "The offensive line was blocking for me, the receivers were blocking for me when I went outside and they were opening gaps for me everywhere."
Quarterback Johnathan Brantley scored on two 11-yard touchdowns runs on back-to-back drives to start the second quarter, and EIU went up 35-0 in the second quarter when Alexander Hollins hauled in his 14th touchdown catch of the season, this one on a 38-yard strike.
EIU was 4-for-4 in the red zone in the first half to help jump out to the big lead in the first half.
"That was one thing (offensive coordinator Scott) Parr emphasized this week. The past couple of games teams have given us games to win, but we haven't been able to finish in the red zone," Johnson said. "This game we were definitely able to do that. It took some pressure off the defense and the defense took some pressure off us."
Austin Peay did get a score on a 6-yard touchdown reception by Gorel Soumare right before the half that ended a 50-yard drive, but that was the best drive for the Governors in the half.
EIU held Austin Peay to only 126 yards in the first half, including only 40 rushing yards on 29 carries.
"I think mainly knowing that this was our last game at home, everybody stepped up," EIU defensive end Josh Price said. "I told the defensive line before the game to just give it their all. That's what they did. That's the best game the defense has had. We are getting more comfortable in the three-down system."
Austin Peay did have 132 yards in the third quarter but only turned that into one score, a 21-yard pass to D.J. Montgomery. Nick Bruno hit a 20-yard field goal earlier in the quarter so the Panthers lead was only cut to 38-7.
EIU had been giving up 225.6 rushing yards a game and 518.2 yards per game. Saturday was a significant improvement for the Panthers.
"From the beginning of the year to the end of the year, our defense has shown signs but never been consistent and has given up big plays and big yards and all of that stuff. But today kinda put it all together," Dameron said. "Our front played pretty well against their front. Our linebackers played well. The biggest part of it is our safety and corner play has become where it is, where we need it to be. We tackle on the edges, we fit runs and do those things better than what we were doing them before."
EIU ended any chance of a comeback right away in the fourth quarter when Harry Woodbery hit Aaron Gooch for an 8-yard touchdown pass. EIU put 404 yards of total offense against an Austin Peay team that was allowing 388 per game.
"Going into the game, they are one of the two or three top defenses in the league and I heard a lot about that, that they were a good defense," Dameron said. "They play a lot of one-on-one, and not only did we do a good job of throwing and catching and we had 216 yards rushing. I thought our offensive line was physical and blocked well. Plus (Johnson) is a pretty good back. He was running like a man possessed."
Johnson added a 4-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes left for his third touchdown of the day.
Austin Peay did find the end zone with 49 seconds left but EIU easily won 52-21.
"We wanted to finish the seniors' careers on this field with a win, and it was really important to us as a staff and to us as a team that we did that," Dameron said. "I couldn't be more proud of the way the team competed."