Eastern Illinois has forced 20 turnovers this season, 13 by interception and seven by fumble. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Dan Verdun
As the fall progressed, Eastern Illinois suffered losses at key positions via injury leaving first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson facing the Ohio Valley Conference’s toughest teams down the stretch a far cry from where he wanted to be.
A week ago, it was No. 19 Southeast Missouri. The Redhawks posted a 31-7 win over the Panthers in EIU’s home finale.
“A very good SEMO team, a tip of the hat to them,” Wilkerson said Tuesday during the conference’s Zoom media address.
Saturday’s opponent is Tennessee Martin, tied with SEMO atop the OVC standings and ranked No. 25 nationally.
“I actually love that we’re playing the two toughest teams in our conference last,” EIU defensive lineman Cam Leach told Prairie State Pigskin. “It’s a great opportunity to go out and show that we can compete and play with everybody.”
That competing has gotten more difficult as the season has worn on. Eastern has been forced to rotate offensive personnel in both the line and at the so-called skill positions.
The Panthers have not scored more than 17 points since putting up 34 in an Oct. 15 double-overtime loss to Lindenwood.
In the midst of a five-game losing streak, EIU has turned the ball over 12 times — six by interception and six by fumble.
“One of the things we have struggled with is our inability to not turn the ball over,” Wilkerson said.
That, in turn, has put more pressure on the EIU defense, often left to defend short fields and extended time against opposing offenses.
Heads or tails?
Though it sounds like a scene out of “Friday Night Lights,” a coin toss very well could determine the Ohio Valley Conference champion.
While UT Martin (6-4, 4-0) entertains EIU, SEMO (8-2, 4-0) hosts two-win Murray State Saturday afternoon.
SEMO and UT Martin did not play each other due to the late conference addition of Lindenwood, thus knocking a conference game off each team’s schedule.
If both the Redhawks and Skyhawks finish undefeated in league play, the automatic qualifier tiebreaker will be determined by a coin flip.
The national media consensus is that the OVC would benefit from UT Martin winning the coin toss.
“UT Martin would not have as strong of an argument for an at-large bid if it lost a tiebreaker coin flip to SEMO,” wrote national pundit Sam Herder, pointing out the Skyhawks’ lesser record and losses to unranked Missouri State and Kennesaw State.
Should UT Martin win the coin toss, the Skyhawks would gain the league’s automatic playoff berth. SEMO, meanwhile, would certainly be a viable at-large candidate.
According to OVC officials, the coin flip would take place between the conclusion of Saturday’s football games and the 7 p.m. start of the conference volleyball championship, which is being held in Martin, Tenn. that evening.
This week’s opponent
UT Martin is the defending OVC champion and advanced into second round of the FCS playoffs last year.
The Skyhawks remained unbeaten in OVC play with a 20-3 win at Tennessee State last weekend. UT Martin rode a dominating defensive performance to victory. The Skyhawks grabbed two interceptions, blocked a field goal attempt and allowed a season-low three points against Eddie George’s TSU Tigers.
Several Skyhawks are on milestone watch including running back Zak Wallace (959 rushing yards) and wide receiver Colton Dowell (918 receiving yards), both within 100 yards of reaching respective 1,000-yard plateaus.
Quarterback Dresser Winn also sits 299 yards away from becoming the fourth player in UT Martin history to pass for 3,000 yards in a single season.
Wilkerson described UT Martin as “big and physical and fast.”
(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: WEIU.net/HitMix)
Key matchup to watch
EIU defense vs. UT Martin offense: Given the recent Panther woes on offense, Eastern must find a way to gain turnovers and limit the damage of a Skyhawk offense averaging over 30 points per game.
EIU’s best shot at a victory is a low-scoring game that comes down to a few key plays.
What’s at stake?
An upset of UT Martin would spoil the Skyhawks’ playoff chances and give EIU its first season of three wins since 2018.
Wilkerson said that Dom Shoffner, who was injured in the loss to SEMO, is the likely starter at quarterback Saturday . . . EIU kicker Stone Galloway missed his first field goal attempt of the season last week when the junior’s 51-yard attempt failed. That miss snapped a streak of 14 consecutive made field goals for the Collinsville native . . . Saturday’s contest marks the 28th meeting between the two programs with EIU holding a 15-12 advantage in the all-time series. However, UT Martin has won five of the last six meetings.