EIU presses ahead into home finale against No. 19 Southeast Missouri

Eastern Illinois will make its entrance onto O’Brien Field for the final time this season Saturday against conference co-leader Southeast Missouri. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

By Dan Verdun

Eastern enters the final two weeks of its season battered and bruised — not ideal when facing the top two teams in the Ohio Valley Conference.

First up for the Panthers (2-7, 1-2 OVC) is Southeast Missouri State. The Redhawks (7-2, 3-0) are ranked in the FCS Top 20.

EIU will conclude its season Nov. 19 at Tennessee Martin (5-4, 3-0). The Skyhawks, tied with SEMO for first place in the OVC, play at Tennessee State Saturday.

Should both SEMO and UT Martin win out, a coin flip will determine the OVC champion since the teams do not play each other this fall.

EIU is coming off a 29-17 non-conference loss at McNeese State, a game in which the Panthers fielded far from a complete roster.

Chris Wilkerson

“Lots of players earned their first opportunity of substantial playing time or their first collegiate or Division I starts,” EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson Tuesday. “We had 18 starters out, 17 with our kicker (Stone Galloway) being taken off the airplane before we took off with the flu running through our team.”

Though Wilkerson liked his team’s effort last weekend, noting the Panthers only had one penalty, the first-year coach attributed the loss to “way too many missed tackles, explosive plays allowed (and we) certainly didn’t stop their running game.”

Dom Shoffner, who made his first collegiate start at McNeese, will open at quarterback against SEMO.

Shoffner, a transfer from FBS Charlotte, rushed for a team-high 78 yards and passed for 187 yards.

Wilkerson said that Jonah O’Brien, who started the first eight games at quarterback this season, is still “day-to-day” after suffering a concussion in EIU’s Oct. 29 loss to Tennessee Tech.

Two Chicago-area freshmen — Kevin Conway (Providence Catholic) and Justin Kowalak (Crystal Lake South) — could also see time at QB “if and when the opportunity presents itself,” Wilkerson said.

This week’s opponent

Southeast Missouri features Peoria native Geno Hess, the program’s career rushing leader.

Transfer quarterback Paxton DeLaurent has passed for 2,407 yards and 19 touchdowns.

SEMO head coach Tom Matukewicz said DeLaurent will be a “game-time decision Saturday.” DeLaurent injured his foot in the first half of the Redhawks’ 42-0 victory at Tennessee State.

Should DeLaurent be unable to play, senior CJ Ogbonna will take over at quarterback. Ogbonna, who relieved DeLaurent following the injury, started all 11 games for SEMO last season.

Inside linebacker Bryce Norman is 21st in the FCS in tackles with 85, while defensive back Lawrence Johnson and outside linebacker Keandre Booker each have 6.5 tackles for loss.

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: WEIU.net/HitMix)

Key matchup to watch

EIU run defense vs. Hess: The 5-foot-8, 222-pound Hess ranks sixth in the FCS with 1,054 rushing yards. The preseason OVC player of the year has twice rushed for more than 200 yards in a game this season.

A year ago, Hess carried the ball 28 times for 107 yards with a touchdown as SEMO waxed Eastern, 38-15.

“Best running back we’ve seen so far,” Wilkerson said. “The Hess Express runs with his shoulders over his toes . . . He does a better job than any back I’ve seen this year of keeping his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage. When he wants to get vertical, he’s patient. He’s got great vision. He sticks a foot (and goes).”

Wilkerson also complimented Hess as a blocker.

“(He’s) never afraid to run through with contact,” Wilkerson said, “and if we don’t tackle very well, he is gonna shred us.”

Matukewicz said, “The other part is the type of teammate he is. He’s turned into a really humble player. He wasn’t when he first got here; he thought he’d invented football. But now he appreciates his teammates and understands this really is a team award.”

What’s at stake?

Eastern has lost four straight games to Southeast Missouri. The last time the Panthers beat the Redhawks was in 2017.

Following its game at Eastern, SEMO hosts Murray State (1-8, 1-3) in the Nov. 19 regular season finale.

Asked by a reporter about “running the table for the next two weeks” and being “where we want to be for the postseason,” Matukewicz replied, “If I hear one of my players say that, I’m going to stab him with a ballpoint pen. That’s how I feel about it.

“Don’t let your mind take you somewhere your ass isn’t. This is EIU, EIU, EIU.”

Quick hits

Eastern Illinois will honor members of its senior class prior to the game with Ameer Aqel, Elijah Benoit, Bryce Dewberry, Grant Edwards, Isaiah Hill, Cameron Leach, Michael McNicholas, Markenzy Pierre and Jay Vallie set to be recognized. EIU will also honor former players Matt Judd and Cam Mattox, who are ending their careers as student assistant coaches . . . The Panthers have gained 18 turnovers this season, good for 13th in the FCS. Twelve of those turnovers have come off interceptions, which ranks EIU 10th in the nation.

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