Eastern rewind: Panthers outlast Northwestern State, win 2nd straight for 1st time since 2017

Defensive lineman Cameron Leach (93) celebrates his sack during EIU’s win over Northwestern State. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

By Dan Verdun

CHARLESTON — Eastern Illinois went into Saturday’s non-conference game with Northwestern State (La.) with the idea of alternating quarterbacks and then staying with the better of the two.

The answer turned out to be both.

The Panthers rolled up 254 rushing yards in the first half as quarterbacks Dom Shoffner (107) and Jonah O’Brien (52) combined for 159 of those yards. In addition, each QB scored a pair of touchdowns as EIU built a 35-7 halftime lead.

“They were both productive,” Panther head coach Chris Wilkerson said afterward. “Each brings a little bit something unique to the table. They both were productive with their drives, and so we just continued to go with it.”

It was a unique experience for both quarterbacks.

“My freshman year of high school I did (alternate) halves, but never like this before,” O’Brien said. “It was definitely a little weird at first, but it worked. Whatever’s good for the team.”

Shoffner said, “Never, never done that. I’m a team player, and at the end of the day we’re all just here to win. We found a way to win today, and that’s all that matters.”

The second half was a different story as Northwestern State stormed back, outscoring EIU 20-0. The game wasn’t decided until Panther safety Jordan Vincent sealed the victory with an interception with 19 seconds left, allowing Eastern to secure a 35-27 victory.

“We were flat in the second half,” Shoffner said.

The win raised Eastern’s record to 2-3. Northwestern State, a Southland Conference member, slipped to 2-4.

Northwestern State quarterback Zachary Clement passed for 343 yards, the third straight time he eclipsed the 300-yard mark. Zach Patterson caught 12 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

In a day of numerous big plays, Wilkerson was asked which stood out to him.

“The last one,” Wilkerson said. “Being able to get the interception and knowing we could just take the snap and take a knee and be victorious.”

Game changers

3:49, 1st quarter: After Northwestern State had scored to cut the EIU lead to 14-7, Panther Mark Aitken broke off an 80-yard kickoff return before being chased down by Demon Cedric Anderson at the NSU 18.

“The return was originally supposed to go to the right, but my instincts just took over. Nobody was to the left, so I just hit it and ran as fast as I could,” Aitken said.

“That was a big for us because we preach field position,” Wilkerson said.

EIU scored three plays later when O’Brien ran 11 yards for a TD, pushing the lead to 21-7.

4:44, 4th quarter: Northwestern State got a touchdown making it a one-score game. However, holder Scotty Roblow fumbled the extra-point snap and, after scrambling, threw an incomplete pass. Thus, the Demons trailed 35-27.

3:12, 4th quarter: On a fourth-and-1 at the NSU 45, Shoffner surged forward on a QB sneak to gain a key first down. This not only gave EIU a fresh set of downs but also allowed for more time to be taken off the clock.

What it means

The Panthers won their second straight game for the first time since 2017 when they put together a four-game winning streak.

Prime Time Panthers

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

Shoffner, QB: For the third consecutive game, the Charlotte transfer’s legs carried the Panthers. Shoffner rushed 18 times for a game-high 134 net yards. He also threw a 12-yard TD pass to running back Markenzy Pierre.

O’Brien, QB: The Bartlett High School graduate was technically the starter Saturday. O’Brien gained 64 yards on eight attempts, including his two touchdowns.

Nick Coates, S: The sophomore from Louisville had six tackles — five solo — along with a forced fumble and a pass breakup.

What’s next?

EIU shoots for three straight victories when it hosts Lindenwood Oct. 15 in the annual homecoming game.

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