Eastern rewind: Panthers grab Wilkerson’s first win in conference-opening triumph

Dom Shoffner quarterbacked EIU to a victory Saturday at Murray State. (Photo by Dave Winder, Murray State Athletics)

By Dan Verdun

During Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media call, Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson hinted that the Panthers might play more than one quarterback. That decision paid major dividends in Saturday’s league opener.

Transfer Dom Shoffner entered the lineup on EIU’s second series and sparked the Panthers to a 35-21 win over Murray State.

EIU (1-3, 1-0) earned its first win of the season and the first for Wilkerson at his alma mater. The former Panther player and assistant under Bob Spoo was hired last winter following a successful stint at the University of Chicago.

The win also snapped a nine-game EIU losing streak. 

“I’m just excited for these players and this coaching staff,” Wilkerson said afterward. “To come on the road and take the next step was important tonight.”

Murray State fell to 0-4 on the year, 0-1 in the OVC. The Racers will join the Missouri Valley next fall.

Shoffner, who rushed for a team-high 39 yards on five carries late in last week’s loss at Illinois State, ignited the EIU offense to 24 first-half points as the Panthers built a 24-14 halftime lead over Murray State.

“I live by the motto ‘just stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’,” Shoffner said. “I’ve been preparing like I’m going to be the starter since Day 1 (when) I stepped on campus.”

Game changers

4:13, 1st quarter: Cooper Willman broke loose for a 55-yard punt return, setting the stage for a Shoffner-to-Justin Thomas touchdown pass. The score gave EIU a 14-7 lead.

10:40, 4th quarter: Eastern’s Jaelin Benefield was dropped for a five-yard loss on a third-and-one and it appeared Murray State had grabbed momentum. However, Racker linebacker Lawaun Powell was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving the Panthers a first down.

EIU took an advantage of another Murray State penalty on the drive, which ended with a Stone Galloway 32-yard field goal, upping the EIU lead to 27-21.

2:59, 4th quarter: Linebacker Elijawah Tolbert intercepted Murray State’s Jayden Stinson, helping to seal the EIU victory.

What it means

Wilkerson has talked repeatedly about building for the Ohio Valley Conference games. Saturday’s win gives the Panthers a solid start in the league.

Prime Time Panthers

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

Shoffner, QB: The transfer from Charlotte rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns. He passed for 74 yards and a touchdown.

Kendi Young, RB: Listed as third string on the roster, the Thornton Fractional North High School graduate broke away for 36-yard run with just under a minute to play in the opening half. Young rushed for 79 first-half yards and finished with a career-high 160 yards.

Tolbert, LB: The Thornton Township High School product registered six tackles, two interceptions and three pass-breakups.

What’s next?

Eastern enters its bye week on an emotional high. The Panthers return to action Oct. 8 at home against Northwestern State (La.) as part of the Ohio Valley-Southland Conference alliance scheduling agreement.

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