Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Must-Win for Eastern Illinois: an article from The Sports Network

For Eastern Illinois, a 'must-win' comes early
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It seems funny to say a football team is facing a must-win in September, especially one that entered the season as a defending conference champion and holding a No. 18 national ranking.

Yet that describes Eastern Illinois' predicament this week. The Panthers, who went to the playoffs last year for the fourth time in the last five seasons, have had the most disappointing start of any team in the Football Championship Subdivision. They are 0-3 for the first time since 1999, losing at Iowa as expected and then to Central Arkansas, 37-7, and at UT Martin, 20-10, in their Ohio Valley Conference opener.

On Saturday, EIU desperately wants to change the script. The Panthers host Jacksonville State in Charleston, hoping to jump-start a season whose battery has been dead. The visiting Gamecocks, whom EIU was expected to battle for the OVC title, will roll into town with a No. 4 national ranking and a 3-0 record, which features the thrilling double-overtime upset of Ole Miss.

An EIU victory not only will change a lot for the Panthers, it would open up the OVC race to incredible possibilities.

But the Gamecocks, who have lost four of the last five meetings against EIU, likely see blood in the water as they prepare to take on the Panthers' injury- riddled lineup.

"We're struggling. The bottom line is we haven't played well enough to win," EIU coaching legend Bob Spoo said. "Our defense has kept us in games, they're doing their job. Offensively, we've really struggled. We've got to get better there, be competitive. But we haven't been in these first three games. That's why we're 0-3."

It says a lot that EIU's team trainer has been busier than some of the Panthers' all-conference talent.

Tailback Mon Williams isn't at full strength after missing the first two games with a strained knee and then having an ineffective season debut last Saturday at UT Martin.

And that's the good injury update.

On the offensive line, standout center Willie Henderson hasn't played since the opener because of back issues and won't play against Jacksonville State. A head injury has put starting tackle Ryan Grossman on the sideline. Possible starting tackle Mike Garrity is out for the year with an ACL injury. Even right guard Alex Pierce was banged up at UT Martin and is listed as probable for Saturday's game.

Plus, redshirt sophomore Brandon Large has struggled to replace last year's quarterback, Jake Christensen. The Panthers haven't found consistency in the pistol offense, an abbreviated shotgun system (run famously by the University of Nevada) in which the quarterback and running back are staggered in the backfield.

It all adds up to one of the lowest-ranked offenses in the FCS - one that hasn't scored in the second half of four straight games dating to last year's playoff loss to Southern Illinois.

"There's a long way to go yet and the league is really solid from top to bottom, so there's all kind of possibilities yet. You gotta continue to hope that you get a little bit better," said Spoo, whose program hasn't begun a season with four straight losses since 1977.

Spoo's counterpart, Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe, isn't buying into anything less than the usual tough game against EIU. His Gamecocks have won their last seven road games - the longest streak in the FCS - but have developed their own injury problem. Standout tailback Calvin Middleton missed last Saturday's overtime win at Georgia State with a bruised foot and might remain sidelined again this week.

"They got our film, we got their film," Crowe said. "I still see Eastern Illinois and they still see the same kind of Jacksonville State football team that they've managed to whip more than we've been able to whip them.

"Eastern Illinois' defense (led by senior outside linebacker Nick Nasti) is something that will give us a lot of trouble. They always have. I can't remember having a really good day - we've have a couple good halves against 'em - over time."

Five of the OVC's nine teams received votes in the conference's preseason poll and none is among the three atop the early standings at 1-0 - Austin Peay, Southeast Missouri and UT Martin.

Southeast Missouri's 24-21 win at Missouri Valley Football Conference power Southern Illinois, then ranked fifth nationally, was nearly as impressive as Jacksonville State taking down Ole Miss. The Redhawks, who beat Murray State in their OVC opener, go for another conference win Saturday at home against Tennessee Tech.

Should EIU topple Jacksonville State in the Gamecocks' conference opener, would it ever create one of the nation's more intriguing title races.

"Us coaches that have been here a few years, we've been saying that every year that this league is getting better, more competitive," Southeast Missouri coach Tony Samuel said. "This is not something overnight."

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