Improved EIU offense shows encouraging signs despite opening-week loss

Redshirt sophomore Jonah O’Brien threw for a career-high in passing yards and touchdowns Thursday night in Eastern Illinois season opener. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

By Dan Verdun

While one game is a very small sample size, Eastern Illinois appears to be much more dynamic on offense from a year ago. And that’s a welcomed sign for Panther coaches and fans.

EIU — now under the guidance of first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson and first-year offensive coordinator Joe Davis — ran off 65 plays for 441 yards of total offense in the season opener Sept. 1 at Northern Illinois.

Yes, NIU — the defending Mid-American Conference champion — defeated Eastern 34-27 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. And while Wilkerson declined to claim any moral victory, the bus ride back to Charleston surely had some good vibes.

Oddsmakers listed NIU as 35-point favorites prior to kickoff. An ESPN-Plus graphic showed the disparity between the FBS Huskies and the FCS Panthers:

The transfer who transferred back

Bartlett High School graduate Jonah O’Brien emerged from a three-man competition in fall camp to earn Thursday’s starting quarterback assignment.

Eastern actually outgained Northern 441-379 in total offense. That EIU yardage total was 63 yards more than in any game total last season. And it came against NIU, an FBS team predicted to repeat as MAC titlists.

However, two costly turnovers — first-half interceptions — proved to be a game-changing difference.

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

O’Brien’s story is an interesting one. He spent 2019 at Eastern as the scout team quarterback and wound up playing the final home game of the season against Southeast Missouri, completing 12-of-21 pass attempts for 84 yards with an interception.

Jonah O’Brien

O’Brien transferred to FBS Colorado State for 2020 season. After sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, O’Brien appeared in one game for the Rams but did not record any statistics.

This past spring, O’Brien made the generally unorthodox decision to transfer back to EIU.

“(There’s) a lot more energy, a lot more positive (feelings) around the place now,” O’Brien told Prairie State Pigskin during EIU fall camp.

Perhaps the 6-foot-4, 210-pound O’Brien is used to transition. After all, he began his prep career in Kaukauna, Wis., starting several games as a sophomore before missing his junior season due to injury. Then his family relocated to Bartlett prior to senior year of high school.

Encouraging signs

O’Brien’s first interception led to an NIU touchdown, putting the Huskies ahead 21-3 at the 11:33 mark of the second quarter.

O’Brien and the Panthers regrouped and strung together a drive that led to a Stone Galloway field goal just before halftime. Operating out of a no-huddle offense, O’Brien went 4-for-4 on the drive, highlighted by a 42-yard completion to Justin Thomas, a transfer receiver from Division III Albion (Mich.) College.

Mixing in the run, O’Brien played a turnover-free second half in which he completed 14-of-19 passes and threw touchdowns to three different receivers.

Jaelin Benefield accounted for 181 all-purpose yards against NIU. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

“We knew those two turnovers in the first half made a big difference. We knew we were beating ourselves,” said running back Jaelin Benefield, who caught one of those TDs. “The second half was 0-0 in our heads.”

Wilkerson said, “There’s no panic. That’s something we talked about preseason. That’s something we talked about to the kids all night. Let’s be ourselves . . . We had to be patient. We stayed with the game plan. We still ran the football, we didn’t just start throwing it every single down.”

Redshirt senior Markenzy Pierre rushed for 100 yards, including a key 42-yarder. Pierre, who transferred from Syracuse a year ago, had just 125 yards on 39 carries all of 2021 — which made him EIU’s third leading rusher.

NIU head coach Thomas Hammock also noted the difference in the second half.

“Eastern Illinois had a nice little plan as far as trying to keep the ball away from us. They did a good job of staying in normal down-and-distance situations,” Hammock said. “The (NIU) defense was opportunistic in the first half. We turned them over twice. We never had a chance to get them behind the sticks in the second half. They were in second-and-four, second-and-five the whole second half and that puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”

Wilkerson said, “My hat’s off to Northern Illinois. They’re a very good football team. They have a definitive identity and they played well enough to win tonight.”

Perhaps Wilkerson’s team is at the genesis of establishing its identity.

“We calmed each other down and got settled in with this week one and helped us come out with this second half,” Panther safety Jordan Vincent said. “We’re willing to compete with whomever. 

“We showed tonight that it’s a new program now. We changed a lot in the offseason, and we feel real confident coming into 2022.”

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