Eastern Illinois faces nationally ranked FCS playoff contender in home opener

Eastern running back Jaelin Benefield (3) accounted for 181 all-purpose yards against Northern Illinois. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson has talked repeatedly about the growth of a team from its opening game into week two.

Wilkerson’s Panthers will open their home schedule Saturday night against a nationally ranked FCS opponent following their 34-27 loss at FBS Northern Illinois from the Mid-American Conference.

“There were a lot of positives to take from it, but certainly there are a lot of areas that we need to improve on,” Wilkerson said of EIU’s first game.

At the top of Wilkerson’s “must get better” list are penalties and turnover margin.

“Having eight penalties (for 70 yards) is something we’d like to clean up,” Wilkerson said.

EIU also lost the turnover battle 2-0 on a pair of first-half interceptions.

“One of them was just as good as a punt,” Wilkerson said of the interception at NIU two-yard line on a second-and-long throw from near midfield. “We thought it was a good decision by the quarterback (Jonah O’Brien) to give us a chance.

“But the other one was a throw I know Jonah wishes he had back.”

That “other one” set NIU up on the Eastern 35-yard-line. The Huskies cashed in with a quick touchdown, pushing NIU’s lead to 21-3 early in the second quarter.

This week’s opponent

EIU (0-1) hosts the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, ranked No. 10 and No. 11 in this week’s FCS Coaches rankings and Stats Perform FCS poll respectively.

The Mocs (1-0) are the preseason favorites in the Southern
Conference. They opened league play last weekend with a 31-0
win over Wofford.

Chattanooga running back Ailym Ford rushed for 156 yards and two scores in the opener. The junior also caught two passes for 46 yards.

“Their offensive line is big and physical,” Wilkerson said. “Their offense revolves heavily around Ford, the tailback.”

Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright picked up his first win at his alma mater when the Mocs beat Eastern in the 2019 season opener.

(Kickoff: 6 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: link available through EIUPanthers.com)

One matchup to watch

EIU offensive line vs. DL Davonnsha Maxwell: The Southern Conference preseason Defensive Player of the Year and All-American pick, is the anchor of Chattanooga’s defensive line.

“The Maxwell kid in the middle is one of the finest defensive tackles that I’ve seen in 28 years of coaching college football. This kid is going to play on Sunday (in the NFL),” Wilkerson said.

What’s at stake

Eastern Illinois hasn’t won a home opener since 2013 when the Panthers toppled Illinois State 57-24 as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo passed for 480 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns.

Quick hits

Saturday marks Wilkerson’s first home EIU game since he was an assistant coach under Bob Spoo, the program’s all-time winningest coach who spent 25 seasons in Charleston . . . Wilkerson said that Isaiah Hill, EIU’s leading receiver the past two seasons, continues to work his way back from an injury sustained early in fall camp. “The goal is have him back for the first Ohio Valley Conference football game (Sept. 24 at Murray State)” . . . Former Panthers Kamu Grugier-Hill and Dino Fanti will be inducted into the EIU Athletic Hall of Fame this weekend.

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