CHARLESTON — The Eastern Illinois offense has been the storyline for much of the spring and summer with the battle for the starting quarterback job and the chance to practice the Air Raid offense that offensive coordinator Scott Parr brought with him.
It was the defense that stole the show during the first live scrimmage on Saturday, which wrapped up preseason camp for the Panthers.
EIU's defense held the offense in check the first couple of drives until Alexander Hollins took a 15-yard screen pass into the end zone. Then the Panthers defense dominated again, stopping the offense on the next eight drives, which included four sacks and an interception. Nolan Dean, who was moved from running back to linebacker, had the interception that went off a lineman's helmet, and D'Mitri George, James Ubaike, Terrell Greer and Aaron Woods combined for the four sacks.
Then the offensive line and the running game started to settle in. Quarterback Jaylon Banks hit Aaron Gooch to get the Panthers across midfield, and then he scrambled for a first down on fourth-and-five. He completed the drive with a 10-yard strike to freshman wide receiver Marques Ray to snap the offensive drought.
Later, quarterback Johnathan Brantley, who is in a battle with Harry Woodbery and Scotty Gilkey Jr. for the starting job, hit Devin Morrison on fourth down. Darshon McCullough rushed the 3-yard line and on the next play he scored. The scrimmage ended after a Brantley 1-yard bootleg, which was set up by a 30-yard run by McCullough.
EIU head coach Kim Dameron said it took the offense a bit to get used to its first live action of the season.
"Early we didn't throw and catch very good and first time we've done that live. The timing was kinda off. Didn't look real good, to be honest with you," Dameron said. "This time of year our defense should be ahead of where our offense should be. It was tough sledding for the offense today. As the game went on, defenses get tired and the offensive line kinda of meshed a bit. You could see the momentum start to shift. We have a long ways to go on both sides."
Once the offense was able to find its footing, it was on the strength of EIU's ground game. Starting running back Isaiah Johnson had his snaps limited to keep him healthy. McCullough, Jamal Scott and Robert Columbus were the ones handling the load. McCullough had a couple of big runs and a touchdown, Scott proved tough to tackle and broke a few runs, and Columbus looked for the hole and hit it for some good runs throughout the day.
"One thing I did like, and this is where it at all starts, is can we run the ball. I am not concerned about us throwing and catching right now. That stuff will come because of the running game," Dameron said. "I liked the way we ran the football. Jamal, Darshon and Rob Columbus, I thought all of them ran hard and protected the football. We didn't have contact fumbles, so I was pleased with our running backs."
McCullough said the running backs did their job on Saturday.
"Every year we depend on the run game a lot, and I feel like our running backs are the best athletes on the field in my opinion. We competed and I feel like we did well," McCullough said. "Congrats to the (offensive) line, they showed out and made me look good. We are ready for this. Jamal is a great back and he is elusive for his size, and Robert is a nice, hard downhill runner. We are looking good. We have a lot of depth and we are ready to compete."
The running game starts with the play up front. Since Aaron Miller went down with his knee injury, the line has been shuffled around a bit. Aaron Calloway and Josh Doyle have been working at the two tackle spots along with Grant Branch, who is also working at guard with Luther Harris and Johari Branch. Cole Hoover is seeing first-team snaps at center.
Dameron wasn't happy with the offensive line early in the scrimmage, but the group started to make some holes for the running game later and slowed down the pass rush.
"At first I thought we didn't pass pro very well but as the day went on it got better. That's what happens with offenses. They didn't have live reps and they need live reps. We've been blowing the whistles early," Dameron said. "This is why you scrimmage so you can evaluate this stuff and then get back to work and get better at it. I thought that our defensive line handled them early, but as the day wore on, the offensive line opened up some holes and we ran the ball pretty effectively."
While the passing game struggled, Dameron said that portion of the offense will come with time. EIU still has a couple of weeks before its first game at Arkansas on Sept. 1.
"As much as we work on it, once the timing starts coming with the receivers and quarterbacks, I think we will be fine," Dameron said.
EIU's next scrimmage is Saturday, Aug. 25 as part of the Under the Lights event at 4:30 p.m. Season tickets will be distributed at the event and the scrimmage gets underway at 5 p.m.