Tennessee Tech defensive back Christian Watson (16) corrals EIU freshman running back MJ Flowers (20) during Saturday’s game. (Photo by TTUSports.com)
By Dan Verdun
CHARLESTON — Eastern Illinois players and coaches bounded into halftime riding the high of a seemingly game-turning special teams play.
The Panthers then went flat in the second half and let a two-touchdown lead morph into a 20-17 home loss to Tennessee Tech.
“It just hurts that we couldn’t finish and get the win. I was confident with the momentum that we had. It just hurts,” said EIU defensive back Mark Aitken, who returned a blocked field goal 65 yards on the final play before halftime.
“The second half was lack of execution (with) a lot of miscues on our part that ultimately (cost us),” said safety Jordan Vincent, who blocked the kick that Aitken returned. “They (TTU) came out with that fire, and it burned us.”
Both teams are now 2-6 overall. EIU is 1-2 in Ohio Valley Conference, while TTU is 1-3.
Eastern lost starting quarterback Jonah O’Brien to an injury. Head coach Chris Wilkerson declined to elaborate on the nature of the injury.
The Panthers have used a two-quarterback rotation for much of the season with O’Brien splitting time with transfer Dom Shoffner. However, with Shoffner unavailable Saturday due to his own injury (non-throwing hand), redshirt freshman Zach Weir played the second half.
“We talked about starting faster this week (after a slow start at Tennessee State a week ago) and we did that, but we also talked about finishing,” Wilkerson said. “In the first half, we did do our jobs. We made some mistakes, but we were able to overcome them with a couple of critical plays.
“We came back in the second half and we certainly had some situations where we didn’t quite execute and didn’t play well enough to finish the game.”
TTU head coach Dewayne Alexander said his team showed no signs of panic despite the halftime deficit.
“It wasn’t one of those deals where we needed to yell and scream and turn stuff over. It was just a play here, a play there. We felt like we could win the second half, and we knew we could win the game,” Alexander said.
7:12, 1st quarter: Facing a third-and-1 at the TTU 2-yard line, O’Brien faked a handoff to freshman tailback MJ Flowers and attempted to run into the end zone. However, O’Brien was dropped for a two-yard loss. EIU settled for a 21-yard field goal by Stone Galloway, his 14th straight dating back to last season.
6:45, 4th quarter: After having a touchdown called back by penalty, TTU quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall found receiver Bradley Clark wide open over the middle on a fourth-and-goal from the EIU 7.
“We felt like we had to go for it,” Alexander said. “We went for it in the second half a bunch. We didn’t want to settle for field goals.
“It was a designed play. We call it a little rub route. We felt like Eastern would be in man coverage. We felt like it was something we could execute.”
4:32, 4th quarter: Facing a fourth-and-one at the TTU 34-yard-line, Weir bobbled the snap and was swallowed up by the interior Golden Eagle line. A measurement left Weir inches short and the ball went over to TTU on downs.
What it means
The Panthers lost by seven points or less for the third time this season.
Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three EIU players in the game:
Colin Bohanek, LB: The sophomore from Chicago Marist registered a career-high 15 tackles — 13 solo — and forced two fumbles.
Aitken, DB: Using a play that EIU practiced in the week leading up to the game, the Chicago native served as the self-described “scoop-and-score guy” on the field goal block he returned for a TD.
Vincent, S: In addition to blocking the field goal, the Stevenson High School product recorded seven tackles and two pass breakups.
EIU travels to Lake Charles, La. for a Nov. 5 non-conference game at McNeese State. The matchup is part of the OVC-Southland scheduling alliance.