CHARLESTON — It's been a roller coaster two weeks for the Eastern Illinois football team. In the opening game of the season, the Panthers needed a last second touchdown to come away with a win over Indiana State. While the Panthers got the win, the level of play left a bit to be desired.
Then last week, the Panthers squandered a couple of early opportunities against Northern Illinois. Two trips inside the 25-yard line led to only three points in the first quarter. NIU came away for a dominating 38-10 victory
The schedule doesn't get any easier for an EIU team that's trying to get in sync offensive and limit some big plays defensively as the Panthers host the 106th Mid-American Classic as 14th-ranked Illinois State visits O'Brien Field at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The Panthers upset ISU, which was ranked No. 5 at the time, in Normal last season. A win over the Redbirds would be a big boost for the Panthers as they enter Ohio Valley Conference play next week.
Plus the Panthers want to pick up a big rivalry win because they like putting the Mid-American Classic trophy at the entrance of the football complex.
"It's huge. We take great pride in it. It's right there when you walk into the building and it's big for recruiting," EIU coach Kim Dameron said. "The first thing a recruit sees when he walks into the building is that trophy. I told our kids this week, it's a playoff game. That's the implications when we play them. If you look back at last year and the year before, there were playoff implications."
Illinois State is 1-0 on the season after beating Butler 45-0 in the opening week of the season. The Redbirds had an open week last week.
Even though EIU hasn't played up to the level it has expected, Illinois State coach Brock Spack expects to get the Panthers A-game on Saturday.
"They will play very well. You can count on it," Spack said. "They've got some fast guys. Their receivers are very fast and athletic and they are fast on defense as they always are. The quarterback is a good player. They have different tempos they play at and you have to be aware of. We were ready to play last year. But we didn't play well and turned the ball over. They played really well and beat us."
Spack may have praised EIU's receivers and offense, but it's the Panthers offense that needs the most work currently. Through two games, the Panthers have scored a combined 32 points and are averaging 232.5 yards per game and only 68 yards rushing a game.
After throwing only five interceptions last year, EIU quarterback Mitch Kimble threw two last week. He was 14-of-29 passing for only 127 yards in the loss to NIU last Saturday. For the season, Kimble is 41-of-73 passing for 329 yards with only one touchdown.
EIU is playing without tight end Addison Bounds, who is out with a broken finger that he suffered in the season opener.
"We just gotta keep pounding the rock or keep chopping the wood or whatever acronym you want to us. We just have to keep doing things," Dameron said. "Losing Addison hurts us, but the other guys have to step up and our receivers have to do a better job. Our running backs have to do a better job and the quarterback has to do a better job. Just have to continue to practice hard and smart and the hard work will pay off."
Defensively, the Panthers will play without two starters in the first half after both were called for targeting penalties in the second half against NIU. Defensive end Josh Price drew the first call and started both games this season and senior safety Brad Dewberry was called for targeting later in the game. Both players can return for in the second half against Illinois State on Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Iziah Gulley moves into the starting free safety spot in the first half and senior Vince Speller, who missed the first two games, is listed as the backup on the roster. Seniors Mack Weaver and David Owens will fill the defensive end spot in the first half with Price out and both players have seen plenty of time over the past two seasons.
Dameron is not as worried about the defense going into the game compared to the offense.
"I was proud of the effort that we gave. We gave up some big plays, but I'm proud of the effort defensively," Dameron said. "We played hard and didn't make some plays that we had a chance to make. We had two redshirt freshmen in their second game give up a home run ball and hopefully that won't happen again."