CHARLESTON — With regular starting quarterback Mitch Kimble missing Saturday's game with an injury, redshirt freshman Scotty Gilkey Jr. was thrust into the starting role under center for Eastern Illinois in their game against Southeast Missouri State and it didn't take him long to see his first action as a starter Saturday.
The Panthers received the opening kickoff and started at their own 13-yard line, meaning EIU had to go 87 yards if Gilkey was going to lead the offense to some points in his first possession as a starter.
That's exactly what Gilkey did. He helped engineer a 17-play, 87-yard drive that ended with Gilkey scoring on a 1-yard run up the middle to give the Panthers an early 6-0 lead.
Gilkey, who split time with Kimble in the second half of last week's game against Illinois State and played late against Northern Illinois two weeks ago, said he didn't have any butterflies going into the opening drive.
"The coaches prepared me pretty well for this week," Gilkey said. "I knew it was big to get that score first. Drawing first blood, it means something. It brought our whole team a lot of confidence and it puts the defense in great situations, so it felt pretty good."
Gilkey finished the game 9-of-20 passing for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't throw an interception and led the team in rushing for the second straight game, this time with 98 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
Most importantly, Gilkey earned a win in his first career start, with the help of an interception by Bradley Dewberry in the final seconds, as EIU defeated SEMO 19-16.
"It's Scotty's first game to start and I think he did a fantastic job," EIU coach Kim Dameron said. "Yes, he can get better, there were some decisions where I wanted to pull my hair out. That's what happens when you play young players. I was proud of what he did. ... I thought he did a heck of a job throwing the ball. For him to come out and be 9-of-20 and 142 (yards), that's efficient."
Gilkey faced a big test right away in the first drive with the Panthers facing third-and-6 at their own 17-yard line. Gilkey, who only attempted seven passes total in the previous two weeks and had only two completions and one interception, fired a pass to Alexander Hollins, who made the 16-yard reception to give EIU the first down.
That play gave the whole team confidence, Gilkey said.
"The coaches prepared us really well this week. So when we called that play, I knew it was going to be there," Gilkey said. "(Offensive coordinator) Greg (Stevens) did a great job with my reads this week. Mitch Kimble was a big factor in getting me ready this week. He has played the game a lot longer and seem more, so him being on my side, he helped me a lot."
It wasn't the only key throw Gilkey made in the game. In the second quarter, Gilkey threw a pass to the front corner of the end zone, and Hollins fought off the defender for a 32-yard touchdown reception. In the fourth quarter, Gilkey fired a perfect deep ball into the end zone that a wide open Hollins caught for a 38-yard touchdown reception.
"He's got a big arm, he really does," Dameron said. "When his feet are underneath him and his fundamentals are correct, he has a very accurate arm. Where he struggles, sometimes his feet don't get caught up with his brain or he drops that elbow and it starts to fly some. But there's a lot of quarterbacks around the country that have that problem."
Gilkey came into the game with 19 rushing attempts compared to seven passes, but he doesn't consider himself a run-first quarterback. On Saturday, Gilkey proved he can move the offense with his arm.
"I feel like I can run when we need it," Gilkey said. "I've never been a running quarterback. I've always been a passer. But my run game brings something different and it gives defenses different looks and it opens up our pass game. Yeah, I've been running the ball a lot lately, but that's just what we need right now. Obviously, now that defenses have seen us running it, we are able to sling the ball around a little bit more."
Even though he considers himself a passer, Gilkey's legs helped lead EIU to easily its best ground game of the season. EIU ran for 230 yards on 48 carries. Gilkey led the way with 98 yards. Isaiah Johnson added 77 yards and Darshon McCullough had 45 yards. The Panthers were averaging 50 yards per game on the ground before Saturday's performance.
Dameron said Gilkey's rushing ability helped open up the run game.
"When you have to defend the quarterback and running back, it's a little tougher," Dameron said. "You could see him pull it out on an inside zone and there was nobody on the outside. ... With him being able to run, it not only opens up the run game but also the pass game. You can't just load up and with (Hollins) and Dennis Turner and some other guys on the outside being more productive, it all works together."
Even with everything good that Gilkey did on the field, he acknowledged that the defense helped immensely with the win, especially with Dewberry's interception.
"I gotta thank the defense big time because they came to play," Gilkey said. "One hundred percent I trusted the defense (to make a play). I was on the sideline screaming for the defense the whole time. I know what the defense is capable of. These past few weeks, the defense is the reason that we've been able to keep the score down."
Gilkey was happy with how his first start went, but he also recognized he has plenty to work on yet. He broke free for a 29-yard run but had the ball punched out from behind and SEMO recovered for a fumble. It's also no guarantee that he is the starter on Saturday at Tennessee State since there is no timetable for Kimble's return.
Gilkey is going to continue to prepare and continue to get better so he is ready for Saturday's contest.
"It was great. I can't thank the (offensive) line enough. They made me feel comfortable this week," Gilkey said. "Obviously I had some errors tonight and I had the fumble tonight. I've got to improve my ball carrying, I know better. My dad was already talking to me about it. We will break down the film and see what we need to improve on."