By Darren Zancan
The last time two OVC ranked teams faced each other was in 2006. Coincidentally one of those teams was Eastern Illinois. EIU hosted Eastern Kentucky last Saturday, in an OVC football match-up. Both teams came into the game undefeated looking to leave the same way.Good thing football is a 60-minute game; both teams needed every second. From the first whistle to the last, both teams experienced a tug-of-war battle. In the end, the Colonels were able to escape with a 36-31 victory over Eastern Illinois.
“Every time you felt like you had the momentum and were going to knock them out, here they came,” head coach Dean Hood said. “I’m sure they felt like they had us now and here we came back. It was one momentum swing from another. But I am proud of the kids for handling those swings.”
The drama unfolded during the first series.
After a Colonel three-and-out, Logan O’Connor was called on to punt the ball away. Panther special teams player Lorence Ricks was able to partially block the punt, giving Eastern Illinois good field position. The Colonel defense was able to stop any momentum, forcing Eastern Illinois to attempt a 38-yard field goal. Sophomore Chris Moore jumped in front of Austin Signor’s kick, batting the ball out of bounds.
Redshirt freshman quarterback T. J. Pryor, starting his first game of the season, tried to make something happen on offense, but again the Colonels were forced to punt. This time, however, Panther returner Jake Mitchell fumbled O’Connor’s punt, which was recovered by Moore, for a second straight big play on special teams.
Pryor took advantage of the miscue, driving his team down field, finding junior Ryan Aldrin four separate times for completions. The last of which, a four-yard catch in the end zone gave the Colonels an early 7-0 lead.
“My offensive line is stepping up each game and giving me time to see the field,” Pryor said. “The receivers are stepping up as well, making big plays, so I am just trying to get the ball in their hands.”
Pryor finished 19 for 30, for 293-yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Pryor continues to find new targets every week. Orlandus Harris (5 for 120-yards and a touchdown) and Aldrin (6 for 54-yards with a touchdown) filled that role this week.
“I was looking for one more guy to give us some sparks for big play potential and I have kind of been like, where’s this Orlandus Harris guy?” Hood said. “We moved him over from defense to offense, so people had to remind me to be patient, but he is really showing himself.”
Eastern Illinois had problems snapping the ball the first play of its drive. Three times in the first two series, quarterback Jake Christensen saw the ball sail over his head. The last snap sailed over his head, into the end zone and out of bounds for a safety giving the Colonels a 9-0 lead.
The Colonels looked as if they would run out to a big lead early, but like Hood said, the momentum swung, and swung quickly.
Pryor engineered another strong drive, but Carlos Reyna picked Pryor’s pass attempt and returned it 34-yards to Eastern’s 21-yard line. Tallying Pryor’s first interception of the season.
Five plays later Mon Williams took a Christensen hand-off one-yard for a touchdown, closing the gap to 9-7.
The Colonels would return the scoring favor with its longest drive of the game. Starting at the 20-yard line, Pryor handed off to C.J. Walker for a 6-yard gain. Twelve plays and 80-yards later, Pryor scrambled out of the pocket and into the end zone giving the Colonels a 16-7 lead, after an O’Connor extra point.
The momentum slowly started to swing the Panthers way halfway through the second quarter.
Austin Signor connected on a 42-yard field goal to bring the score to 16-10.
A few possessions later, Christensen found Chavar Watkins for a 45-yard touchdown catch, giving Eastern Illinois its first lead of the game 17-16 heading into halftime.
Even though the Colonels were behind at halftime, Hood stayed grounded and focused on the last 30 minutes of the game.
“We had to show the guys what’s happening and what adjustments we will make,” Hood said. “It gives them an opportunity to sit down and see it, rather than in between series when it’s crazy. We are able to talk like human beings and remind them that Eastern was out hitting us in the first half and if we are going to win, they had to accept that challenge of being more physical.”
Hood’s approach paid off, not just on defense, but on offense as well. The Colonels, who have struggled on third downs all season, converted 10 of 16 downs for the game.
The defense got to Christensen sacking him seven times, and pressuring him into two interceptions, both made by OVC defensive player of the week, Jeremy Caldwell.
Christensen gave the Panthers a two-possession lead early in the third quarter.
Starting at their own 18-yard line, Christensen and Williams took turns moving the football, culminating in a 22-yard completion to Chris Wright for a 24-16 Panther lead.
But the wheels would fall off for Christensen and the Panthers.
With a little under ten minutes left in the third quarter, Caldwell picked off a Christensen pass, returning the interception 12-yards to the 46-yard line.
Five plays later, Pryor found Harris for a 31-yard touchdown closing the lead to 24-23.
Later in the game, Philip Herbst broke through making the block on an Eastern Illinois punt. Setting up a Walker one-yard touchdown run giving the Colonels its first lead since the first quarter, 29-24.
For the second week in a row, the Colonels would block a punt leading to a touchdown.
Colonel defense had no lack of pressure on Christensen on the ensuing drive.
The first series of the fourth quarter, Uriah Grant sacked Christensen for a 7-yard loss, forcing a fumble, which was recovered by Moore, his third big play of the game.
“Coach Hood has us ready every game,” junior linebacker Antonio Frederick said. “We are always getting pressure on the quarterback. No one comes out on defense selfish; we come out and play as a team. If one person makes a mistake, everyone makes a mistake.”
Caldwell would capitalize on another Christensen mistake, for his second interception of the game, this time for a 10-yard return for a touchdown.
“I feel like I just had to make a big play,” Caldwell said. “I stepped up and had the chance and took advantage of it.”
Caldwell now has four interceptions on the year, currently tied for first nationally in the FCS division.
The Panthers tried to come back, scoring with five minutes left in the game, this time on a 44-yard completion by Christensen to Kenny Whittaker, making it 36-31, but the Colonels made the plays when they needed to.
The Colonels ran down the clock, giving the ball back to Eastern Illinois with 1:28 to play. Caldwell tackled Christensen forcing him to fumble at the 49-yard line, ending any hope of a come-from-behind-win.
This Saturday they will face off, at home, against Tennessee State at 6 p.m. Tennessee State holds the only conference win against the Colonels in 23 games.
“Last week is the Super Bowl and this week is the Super Bowl,” Hood said. “And the week after that is going to be the Super Bowl. If you don’t approach every game like that, then you’re asking for trouble.