Eastern rewind: Panthers fall 34-27 at NIU in season opener

Transfer Justin Thomas was Eastern’s leading receiver in his Panther debut. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

By Dan Verdun

Sometimes the plays that aren’t made are just a big as those that are.

Northern Illinois (1-0) capitalized on two turnovers while Eastern Illinois (0-1) let potential takeaways drop en route to a 34-27 win Thursday night at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

“We just tried to give ourselves a chance,” first-year EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson said. “The kids really, really battled hard for four full quarters.

“We did a lot of the things that we said we needed to do to give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter, but there were still some big plays that we didn’t make early in the game that ironically, when we watch the tape tomorrow, will probably come back to haunt us.”

NIU, predicted to repeat as Mid-American Conference champions this fall, entered the game 35-point favorites.

“There’s no such thing as a moral victory,” Wilkerson said.

Jonah O’Brien emerged from a three-candidate fall camp derby to get the starting nod as EIU quarterback. The redshirt sophomore from Bartlett thew for a career-high 276 yards and three touchdowns.

Game changers

13:04, 2nd quarter: EIU defensive back Tyris Harvey had an almost assured Pick 6 on his hands only to drop the ball. Given a reprieve, NIU scored a touchdown four plays later to up its lead to 14-3.

11:46, 2nd quarter: On the next drive, O’Brien threw an interception. NIU cashed in with a quick-strike TD, increasing its lead to 21-3.

8:41, 4th quarter: After the Panthers cut the lead to 31-20, NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi hit speedy Shemar Thornton for a 38-yard gain on a third-and-10. NIU wound up with a field goal but also bled over six minutes off the clock with the drive.

What it means

O’Brien showed promise and poise despite his two interceptions.

“At first glance there are some things that he did really, really, really well,” Wilkerson said. “And there certainly some things that maybe he wishes he’d done better.”

Barring injury, O’Brien’s grip as EIU’s QB1 appears tight.

Prime Time Panthers

O’Brien, who returned to EIU after a short stint at Colorado State, completed 25-of-34 passes.

Senior receiver Justin Thomas produced a game-high six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in his Panther debut. Thomas transferred to EIU from Division III Albion (Mich.) College.

Redshirt sophomore Jaelin Benefield had 181 all-purpose yards (63 rushing, 57 receiving, 61 returning). Benefield hauled in a 24-yard touchdown from O’Brien.

Redshirt senior Markenzy Pierre rushed for 100 yards on 14 carries.

What’s next?

With its FBS-revenue game in the rear view mirror, Eastern turns its attention to its home opener Saturday, Sept. 10 against Chattanooga, an FCS program from the Southern Conference.

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