Eastern rewind: Miscues spell Panthers’ demise in Mid-America Classic

Eastern Illinois lost for the fifth straight time in its rivalry game with Illinois State despite DeWayne Cooks Jr.’s touchdown. (Photo by EIU_FB Twitter)

By Dan Verdun

NORMAL — Any chances Eastern Illinois had of winning back the traveling trophy from Illinois State disappeared in a flurry of turnovers, bad snaps and penalties.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, you can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to be successful,” EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson said afterward outside the visiting locker room.

Eastern (0-3) suffered three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — and two lost fumbles as Illinois State (2-1) drubbed the Panthers 35-7 Saturday night at Hancock Stadium.

Wilkerson cited “the turnovers and the penalties in critical situations” as the most disappointing items on EIU’s laundry list.

“It was the turnovers, a little bit of (poor) tackling and certainly the penalties at inopportune times,” Wilkerson said. “The 21 points off turnovers is the difference tonight.”

Game changers

9:10, 2nd quarter: EIU defenders Tim Varga and Colby Smith stuffed ISU running back Pha’leak Brown on 4th-and-1 at the Panther 48, only to have the play erased by an illegal substitution penalty.

With the drive kept alive, Illinois State ended up scoring a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead.

1:09, 2nd quarter: EIU quarterback Jonah O’Brien’s pass was tipped by ISU’s Jeremiah Jordan and wound up in the hands of Jeff Bowens, who returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. The extra point gave the Redbirds a 21-7 halftime lead.

12:16, 3rd quarter: ISU scored its second Pick 6 of the game as defensive back Deandre Lamont grabbed a tipped ball by linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh and returned it three yards for a score.

What it means

Eastern has now lost five straight games to Illinois State in the Mid-America Classic rivalry. ISU has won seven of the last eight and eight of the last 11 in the series.

Prime Time Panthers

Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three EIU players in the game:

Trey Wilhoit, P: The sophomore transfer averaged 44.8 yards per punt. Wilhoit placed two kicks inside the 20-yard line with a long of 56 yards.

Elijawah Tolbert, LB: The sophomore from Country Club Hills registered seven tackles, an interception and a half of a tackle-for-loss.

Nile Hill, WR: The redshirt sophomore from Marist High School led EIU with seven catches for 41 yards, both career bests.

What’s next?

The Panthers open Ohio Valley Conference play Sept. 24 at Murray State. The Racers (0-3) lost 31-0 at Ball State Saturday.

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