Backups spark Eastern Illinois as Panthers race past Murray State

Sophomore Kendi Young (29) ran for a career-high 160 yards as Eastern Illinois defeated Murray State Saturday in Ohio Valley Conference action. (Photo by Dave Winder, Murray State Athletics)

By Dan Verdun

Eastern Illinois fans and Panther running back Kendi Young have seen this film before.

In 2020 Young, then a freshman, broke off a 72-yard run against Southeast Missouri en route to an 88-yard collegiate debut.

“I’m trying to make a replay every time I get the ball,” Young said.

That was the case and more Saturday against Murray State in EIU’s Ohio Valley Conference opener.

This time around, Young ripped off a 43-yard run on his first touch against the Racers. That early second quarter sprint was part of an 11-play drive that produced a field goal to give his team a 17-14 lead.

EIU would eventually go on to a 35-21 win, the first for Eastern alum Chris Wilkerson, a former Panther player and assistant now in his first year as the program’s head coach.

Running to victory

Eastern rolled up 339 yards on the ground, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

“We’ve got to stop the run. That was embarrassing. You’re not going to beat anyone in college football (giving up that many yards),” Murray State head coach Dean Hood said. “We were playing run defense like we were playing the Chicago Bears running the ball. That’s very disappointing.”

Kendi Young

It certainly wasn’t embarrassing for Young and his teammates.

“To get the dub (win) and for the majority of the yards to be rushing, that’s the best thing ever for a running back,” Young said.

“That’s a credit to everybody,” Wilkerson said. “Quarterback getting us in the right play, communicating, five guys (offensive linemen) getting a hat (block) on five people up front, the tight ends getting a body on a body and people taking pride on blocking on the perimeter.

“Running is hard to do and for us to be able to run the ball like we did tonight, it’s a tip of the hat to all the guys, but it was great to see Kendi back in action.”

Lightning in a bottle

Most likely, Young caught Murray State off guard and maybe a little flat-footed with his performance. After all, the Thornton Fractional North High School graduate was slowed by a nagging injury coming out of fall camp.

Moreover, Young was listed behind redshirt senior Markenzy Pierre and redshirt sophomore Jaelin Benefield on the depth chart. A week ago, Young managed 32 yards on nine carries at Illinois State.

Then came Saturday’s lightning-in-a-bottle outburst. Young, a Calumet City native, ran for a career-high 160 yards on eight carries (20-yard per attempt average). Stopped twice for no gain, Young produced five rushes for 15 or more yards in Saturday’s victory.

“Kendi certainly was banged up, just a little bit. He had a heckuva preseason camp and then had an injury so that slowed him down,” Wilkerson said. “We said from the beginning that we needed a pair and a spare in the backfield.”

Shoffner sparkles

In addition to Young’s yardage, EIU got 88 more and two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Dom Shoffner, who entered the game on the Panthers’ second series.

“He took the offense right down the field and into the end zone, so we (coaches) said ‘hey, let’s let him go again’ and he took them right down the field and into the end zone (a second time),” Wilkerson said.

Murray State wasn’t so much surprised that Shoffner replaced EIU starter Jonah O’Brien at quarterback, but the Racers didn’t realize the Panthers would finish the game with him running the show.

Dom Shoffner (Photo by Dave Winder, Murray State)

“That kid (Shoffner) has played a little bit and we knew when he came in it was a running game, but they went one series with that kid and said we’re done, we’re going with this guy, which was very surprising,” Hood said. “When he’s in there, it’s a different offense.”

Young said, “Next man up, that’s the key thing for our offense and that’s what we did . . . I just came out ready to work (as I was) waiting on my turn. That’s all I’ve been waiting for, and I made it happen.”

Thus, Eastern enters its bye week with a 1-0 record in the OVC. The Panthers return to action Oct. 8 at home against Northwestern State (La.) as part of the Ohio Valley-Southland Conference alliance scheduling agreement.

“We’re going to take it week to week and try to be 1-0 each week and just focus on that opponent,” Shoffner said.

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