Quarterback Jonah O’Brien (6) will make his fourth straight start for Eastern Illinois as the Panthers begin their Ohio Valley Conference schedule. (Photo by DailyEasternNews.com)
By Dan Verdun
Despite an 0-3 start to the season, Eastern Illinois sees Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference opening game as a reset.
“Everybody’s 0-0 (record-wise),” said first-year EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson during Tuesday’s OVC call via Zoom. “We’ve talked since I arrived here about our whole entire focus (being) on trying to improve ourselves in the Ohio Valley Conference.”
The Panther losses came at FBS Northern Illinois (34-27), FCS-ranked Chattanooga (38-20) and rival Illinois State (35-7).
“Certainly last week was not what we’re looking for, and the story of the night was (five) turnovers for us,” Wilkerson said.
Those EIU turnovers included two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a fumble inside the EIU five-yard line resulting in 21 points for Illinois State.
This week’s opponent
Murray State (0-3) hosts EIU in the final matchup between the two schools as Ohio Valley members. The Racers will move to the Missouri Valley Football Conference next fall.
“This season means a lot to me being a head coach at two different places and as an assistant coach,” said Dean Hood, who has coached in the league at Eastern Kentucky as well as Murray State. “I saw some of the great rivalries being there with Roy Kidd and Bob Spoo.”
Kidd coached Eastern Kentucky from 1964 until 2002, winning two national championships. Kidd was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. The 90-year-old Kidd’s 314 victories ranks 10th among NCAA leaders.
Spoo coached EIU from 1987 through 2011. He is the Panthers’ all-time wins leader with 144 victories. Spoo died in 2018.
The Racers’ losses have been to FBS members Texas Tech (66-10) and Ball State (31-0) as well as to former OVC foe Jacksonville State (34-3), which joins FBS next year.
(Kickoff: 4 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: link available through EIUPanthers.com)
Key matchup to watch
EIU running game vs. Murray State front seven: The Panthers need to establish an effective ground game to provide balance for their offense, which was forced to throw the ball 53 times over the past two games.
EIU was also forced to shift its offensive line against Illinois State because of an injury to starting center Elkhanen Tanelus. The Panthers started sophomore Jack Valente at center with redshirt sophomore Michael McNicholas at guard. In the second half, Valente and McNicholas flipped positions.
“McNicholas will actually start at center (against Murray State) for us, and Jack will slide back to his right guard position,” Wilkerson said. “We also expect at some point to get (junior) Ivan Gleyzer back, who had been our offensive center all spring practice and early during preseason before sustaining a concussion.”
What’s at stake?
A win gives either side the edge in the all-time series, which is tied at 19-19. Murray State has won five in a row against EIU, including three games played during the 2021 calendar year.
Former EIU head coach Darrell Mudra died earlier this week at age 93. Mudra, a member of the EIU and College Football Halls of Fame, coached the Panthers 1978-82. Mudra’s ’78 EIU team won the NCAA Division II national championship; his ’80 Panthers finished as runners-up . . . The Ohio Valley Conference is celebrating its 75th anniversary during the 2022-23 academic year. The OVC is the eighth oldest NCAA Division I conference. Eastern Illinois is entering its 27th season as a member of the OVC. The Panthers last won the league’s football title in 2013 under Dino Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse.