The defending OVC champion looks forward to taking on the Illini.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Even though their campuses are less than 50 miles apart, Illinois and Eastern Illinois have never met on the football field.
That will change Saturday when the defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Panthers take on the Illini -- last season's Big Ten doormat -- at Memorial Stadium.
"It's a way for our players to assess themselves and compete against the upper echelon of college football," EIU's acting head coach Mark Hutson said Tuesday.
Hutson will be on the sidelines in place of Bob Spoo, who will miss his 20th season opener and likely several more weeks because of surgery for an undisclosed medical problem.
Eastern won the Division I-AA Ohio Valley Conference with an 8-0 record on their way to a 9-3 season last year, and they return 16 of 22 starters.
"We have to worry about Eastern Illinois because they are a very good football team," Illini coach Ron Zook said at his first game week news conference of the season. "They're a team that's going to throw caution to the wind. They'll come in here and they'll compete."
Saturday's 6 p.m. kickoff means a long day of waiting for both teams. But Hutson plans to use the short distance to his advantage.
The team will travel on the day of the game to Champaign, "a 40 to 45 mile bus ride," he said. "We'll have our pregame meal here at Charleston."
Eastern's roster is packed with more than 50 players from within the state, and Hutson says they're all excited about the chance to play in Memorial Stadium, a place that seats nearly seven times more than O'Brien Field in Charleston.
"Ever since the administration announced that we'd be playing the Illini, players, family, coaches, the community here, we have a large alumni base in the Chicagoland area, the excitement has just continued through the summer," Hutson said.
Illinois will open the season at home for the third straight season. The Illini have won the previous two, against Florida A&M in 2004 and against Rutgers last season, which was the first of two straight victories before the season turned sour with nine straight losses.
Zook and the Illini want to break that demoralizing streak on Saturday, but the coach said his players will have to be ready. Eastern presents a formidable foe, he said.
"They've got guys that the more I watch them, the better they get," Zook said. "They're going to give us all we want."