New league member more than just a passing concern for Eastern Illinois

Eastern Illinois has won two straight games for the first time since 2017. (Photo by Sandy King,

By Dan Verdun

Eastern Illinois has won two consecutive games for the first time in five years. Yet, first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson sees a third straight victory being as unique a challenge as the Panthers have faced.

“This is absolutely, unequivocally the most well-coached football team we have played to this point in time — by far,” Wilkerson said during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media address. “Coach (Jed) Stugart and his staff do a phenomenal job. He and his offensive coordinator, his defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator have all been together for six years.

“This football team knows exactly who they are and what they want to do.”

(Photo by Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Last weekend, quarterback Cade Brister sparked Lindenwood to a 52-49 win over Central Arkansas. The redshirt senior racked up 475 yards of total offense and accounted for seven touchdowns. 

Brister was 26-for-40 passing for 413 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for five TDs, tying his career high, and picked up 62 yards on the ground.

Brister, listed at 6-foot and 222 pounds, has started at Lindenwood for four years. He was named the Missouri high school player of the year in 2016.

To date, Lindenwood passes on 56 percent of its offensive snaps.

“Their offense has been explosive to say the least,” Wilkerson said. “Cade Brister is as good as anybody we have seen.”

Yet, it’s the Lions’ offensive line that has really caught Wilkerson’s attention, calling it “as well-coached as any I have seen in years.”

That unit is coached by Denver Johnson, who was the head coach for 10 seasons at Illinois State (2000-09). Johnson has also been the head coach at Murray State and Missouri Southern State.

“We’re excited about the challenge, but know it’s going to be a very good football team coming here,” Wilkerson said.

This week’s opponent

Lindenwood is in its first season at the FCS level after joining the Ohio Valley Conference this past offseason.

The Lions are 3-2. Lindenwood’s losses are to OVC preseason favorites UT Martin (56-26) and SEMO (49-28).

Brister leads the Lions’ offensive attack, passing for more than 1,600 yards and rushing for another 200. Lindenwood averages 28 points per game. Payton Rose and Kobe Smith have been the top receiving targets.

Defensively, sophomore linebacker Tyrone Griffin leads the Lions with 32 tackles.

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

EIU run game versus Lindenwood defense: In last Saturday’s 35-27 win over Northwestern State (La.), the Panthers employed an alternating quarterback rotation that produced touchdowns on their first four drives.

By game’s end, EIU had rushed for 340 yards. Quarterback Dom Shoffner led with 134 yards on 18 carries. Running back Markenzy Pierre added 71 yards, while QB Jonah O’Brien had 64.

“They do really well in their quarterback run game,” Stugart said. “You’ve got be prepared. You just can’t guess. They might start one; they might start the other.”

Lindenwood has allowed 214 rushing yards per game this season. Opponents have averaged 6.6 yards per carry.

What’s at stake?

The two schools will be playing for the first time.

Lindenwood, located in suburban St. Louis, began playing football as an NAIA member in 1990 and transitioned to the NCAA Division II ranks in 2011.

Lindenwood is one of three new members of the Ohio Valley Conference this academic year. The other two — the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Southern Indiana — do not field football teams.

Due to a late addition to the schedule, EIU and Lindenwood will be meeting in a non-conference game.

Quick hits

Coming into the season, EIU set a goal of forcing 25 turnovers. The Panthers have 12 so far this season with nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Eastern has scored 28 points off those turnovers . . . Saturday’s game is EIU’s Homecoming. The first was held in 1915 . . . Lindenwood is one of three FCS teams that have not recorded an interception this season. The others are Wofford and McNeese State. 

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