If the Eastern Illinois football team is going to avoid a losing season, the Panthers, who are 1-5, have to win out. However, the Panthers' toughest game of the season is this weekend when they travel to Jacksonville State, which is ranked No. 8 in the FCS STATS poll.
The Gamecocks are 4-1 on the season and 3-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The only loss was to North Carolina A&T, which is ranked No. 10 in the poll. Plus the Gamecocks haven't lost an Ohio Valley Conference game since Oct. 24, 2009. The loss was to EIU but since then, Jacksonville State has won 35 straight OVC contests.
Saturday's contest, which kicks off at 3 p.m., pits one of the best defenses in the country (JSU's) against one of the best offenses in the OVC (EIU).
After being one of the worst offenses in the OVC last season with only 17.6 points per game, the Panthers are scoring almost double that on average this year. EIU is averaging 34 points per game and 487 yards per game, which is the second most in the conference. The Panthers are coming off their fourth straight 40-point game, and it was only the second time in the program's history that they accomplished that feat (the last time was in 2002). If the Panthers scored 40 or more points against JSU, it would be the first time in the program's history that they would have done it in five straight games.
The Gamecocks have had no problem in slowing down offensives, though. Even in the loss to A&T, the Gamecocks only game up 20 points. The Gamecocks lead the OVC with only 15.8 points allowed per game and 221.6 yards allowed per game. However, the Gamecocks did give up 32 points to Austin Peay two weeks ago.
Still, EIU coach Kim Dameron knows how good John Grass' defense has been over the past few seasons and expects the Gamecocks to be just as ferocious Saturday.
"We have to make plays. Our quarterback can't hold onto it because they will get smacked by these guys. We have to go play our game and do what we have done to this point and be a really good offense, which we are," Dameron said. "We have to continue to do our job, and it's going to be a very aggressive defense. They play lots of press defense and there are really tight windows to throw into. We can't let the game get out of hand because this is what this defense does, speeds up the offense and causes them to start making mistakes."
EIU's offense has caught Grass' attention, though. At quarterback, Johnathan Brantley has thrown for 1,245 yards and 10 touchdowns. He hasn't thrown an interception yet. Harry Woodbery has thrown for 808 yards and nine touchdowns with only two interceptions. Jamal Scott has rushed for 392 yards and three touchdowns and Isaiah Johnson has rushed for 271 yards and two touchdowns.
Wide receiver Alexander Hollins leads the nation in receiving touchdowns with 11 and has 733 yards. In two seasons, Hollins now has 100 receptions and he is second in the NCAA with 53 receptions. His 11 receptions ranked ninth in EIU's single-season list already. He is third in receiving yards in FCS.
Aaron Gooch has 35 receptions for 418 yards and two touchdowns, and James Sheehan has 28 receptions for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
"They are throwing it all over, and with their ability to do that, it makes them difficult to defend. They get the ball out fast which takes away any rush you have and you have to tackle well," Grass said. "They create grass offensively and it makes you have to tackle. They are going to make some plays and get people over the flats because they are going to complete some balls there because their backs are good, too."
JSU's offense has been just as good. The Gamecocks average 48 points per game and 544.6 yards per game. The loss to A&T was the only game this season where the Gamecocks haven't scored at least 40 points.
Jaelen Greene has rushed for 347 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Pearson has caught 23 passes for 467 yards and eight touchdowns.
But JSU's offense is much improved over last season because of the two quarterbacks. Zerrick Cooper, a Clemson transfer, has passed for 1,136 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Zion Webb has only attempted 36 passes but has four touchdowns. He has also rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns.
"Cooper's efficiency is 157 and when Webb comes in, no one can tackle him and he can throw it. Their quarterback play, they are playing at a high level right now," Dameron said. "Cooper is big and mobile and a heck of an arm and is very accurate. He's the perfect guy for their offense and has played at a high level. All of their receivers can hurt you."