The Eastern Illinois football team that will visit Houck Stadium today for Southeast Missouri State University's homecoming game is a far cry from Panthers squads of recent seasons -- and not just because of a subpar record.
Entering a matchup of two struggling clubs that were expected to be among the Ohio Valley Conference's top units, EIU's normally explosive offense has been ground to a virtual standstill.
Southeast, the OVC preseason favorite, is 0-5 overall and 0-1 in the league. EIU, which won or shared the past two OVC titles, is 1-3 overall and will play its first conference game today.
"We are a much different team than we have been," EIU coach Bob Spoo said.
Led by quarterback Tony Romo -- a three-time OVC Offensive Player of the Year -- EIU used a high-powered offense the last three years to go 25-9 and earn three straight NCAA Division I-AA playoff berths.
Last year's Panthers averaged 452.6 yards and 35.3 points per game to rank among the nation's top offensive units. But Romo has moved on to the Dallas Cowboys, standout running back J.R. Taylor also completed his eligibility and only one starting offensive lineman returned.
The result has been an EIU offense that averages just 12 points and an OVC-worst 249.5 yards per game -- and 27 of the Panthers' 48 points came in a season-opening 27-0 win over Division II California (Pa.). EIU has scored just 14 offensive points in its last three games, with another touchdown coming on defense.
While Spoo knew his offense would be hard-pressed to match last year's unit, "I sure didn't expect us to struggle this much," he said. "But it's been a combination of two things. The quarterback situation has been very iffy at this point. That's a bad place to start. And the offensive line is continuing to struggle."
In hopes of igniting the offense, Spoo will use a different starting quarterback today when junior-college transfer Andrew Harris gets the nod over Andy Vincent, who started the first four games.
Vincent has completed 59.6 percent (53 of 89) of his passes for 466 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Harris, who saw the bulk of the action during Saturday's 23-7 loss at Indiana State, is completing 48.9 percent (22 of 45) for 165 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Harris a little bit taller, a little bit more mobile," Spoo said.
EIU has one of the OVC's top all-purpose runners in tailback and return man Andre Raymond, who has rushed for 239 yards and averages 5.9 yards per carry. But Raymond, who was held to minus-7 yards on nine carries against Indiana State, is banged up. His availability today is in question.
If Raymond can't play much, the Panthers have a solid backup in Vincent Webb, who has rushed for 171 yards and averages 7.2 yards per carry.
While EIU's offense has struggled, the defense has been solid, allowing 20.2 points and 345.5 yards per game after giving up 34.5 points and 404.8 yards a contest last year.
But Spoo is concerned that the Panthers' defense -- which features linebacker Nick Ricks, last year's OVC Defensive Player of the Year, and linebacker Fred Miller, the league's leading tackler -- has been shaky against the pass and has just one quarterback sack.
"I'm concern about putting more pressure on the quarterback, especially the guy we're going against this week," Spoo said. "He's very, very capable, with great size."
Spoo was referring to Jack Tomco, Southeast's record-setting signal caller last year who has struggled much of the season but turned in his best performance last Saturday by passing for 291 yards in a 41-31 loss at Samford.
Like EIU, Southeast struggled offensively in its first four games before breaking out against Samford. And the Indians' defense, while improved statistically, has just one quarterback sack.
"That's also a concern for us," Southeast coach Tim Billings said.
Billings has said the last few weeks that the Indians have been improved with each game and appear ready to finally get a win. But he's tired of saying that.
"It's about time we did it," he said.
And he doesn't expect a victory to come easily today, no matter how much EIU's offense is sputtering.
"They've had quarterback problems and have had trouble scoring, but what's scary is they've got some big-play guys," Billings said. "Defensively, they're really good. They haven't had a lot of points scored on them."
Spoo likes that the Panthers -- who have beaten Southeast the last three years -- can gear up for the start of a new season today in their conference opener.
"That's something we've tried to talk about the whole way through," he said.
Southeast saw its new season begin with the upset loss at Samford, meaning the Indians have virtually no margin for error if they hope to have a chance at winning their first OVC title.
"I think the champion is going to have at least one loss, but we've already got one," Billings said. "It would be really hard if we got another one."
OVC history indicates Billings is right. Since the league began in 1948, only once has a team won the title with as many as two losses. That happened in 1962 when there was a four-way tie for the crown.
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