The schedule was set up almost perfectly. Last season, Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois played at the beginning of Ohio Valley Conference football play. Due to the rotating schedule, that changed this season, and Austin Peay moved to the final OVC game for the Panthers. It’s almost fitting.
Even though the Governors struggled the past few seasons, to the tune of a 29-game losing streak, Will Healy’s team has found its footing this season, and it stunningly went from OVC doormat to potentially knocking at the door for a spot in the FCS playoffs. Not only did the Governors snap their losing streak earlier this season, they are second in the OVC with a 6-1 conference record and are 7-4, with three of the losses coming against FBS opponents.
The Panthers are right behind Austin Peay with a 6-4 record, including 5-2 in the OVC. The winner of Saturday’s game, which starts at 4 p.m. in Clarksville, Tennessee, will assume the No. 2 spot in the conference, which Healy, Austin Peay’s coach, thinks is good enough to get the victor into the FCS playoffs.
“I know what the talent is like in the other leagues. I don’t think this league gets anywhere close to the credibility it deserves. I’ve spent the week trying to market what the league has done,” Healy said. “I feel like it should be a multiple-bid league. Still, there’s something we could’ve done to not be in this situation. If EIU beats us, they should be in the playoffs. Both teams are fighting to find a way to get in, and hopefully we can come out on the right end of it.”
For Austin Peay, it would be the Governors' first-ever playoff bid, which was unthinkable a year ago when the Governors were in the midst of their losing streak in Healy’s first season.
But EIU coach Kim Dameron saw an improved Austin Peay squad last season, and his players found out last season how dangerous the Governors are.
EIU jumped out to a 14-0 lead in last season’s game, but Austin Peay tied the game at 21. It was a 35-28 game when EIU pulled away and went on to win 56-35.
“Both offenses went down the field and were competitive a year ago,” Dameron said. “With the new pieces they have added, all you have to do is put the film on and see they are a much-improved team from a year ago. And a year ago they were improved from the previous years. It’s a team that’s won a lot of conference games.”
Austin Peay comes into the game with the top rushing offense in the OVC with 252.7 yards per game. The Governors run an option offense.
“You have to take care of the quarter and the pitch game. You have to defense all 11, and I’ve been saying for years that it’s the hardest offense to defend,” Dameron said. “It’s a tremendous challenge to keep it under wraps and you can’t just shut them down. You have to limit the explosive plays and turn them into a one-dimensional team.”
EIU’s rushing defense has allowed 139.8 yards a game this season and has continually improved over the past couple of games. The Panthers held UT Martin and Eastern Kentucky to a combined total of 139 yards rushing.
“They play so hard. They are physical and good inside and are fast on the outside and rally to the ball well,” Healy said. “They play hard and have good athletes. I feel like it will be a difficult team to run the football against. The team that controls the line of scrimmage will win the game. We have to match their energy and enthusiasm. It will be a great football game.”