Redhawks, Panthers battle for their first OVC victory

Saturday, October 18, 2008

It hasn't been a vintage season for the Eastern Illinois University football team.

The Ohio Valley Conference's top program over the last three years already has lost as many OVC games — two — as in the previous three seasons combined.

"It is [unfamiliar territory]," said Bob Spoo, by far the OVC's dean of coaches who is in his 21st season at EIU. "But there's a long way to go yet. A lot of things can happen in this game."

EIU will try to get back on track today when the Panthers host Southeast Missouri State in their homecoming game.

Both squads are 2-4 overall and 0-2 in OVC play, which has them tied for seventh place in the nine-team conference.

That's a far cry from where the Panthers normally reside. They are 22-2 in the OVC the last three seasons, winning titles in 2005 and 2006 and finishing second last year.

EIU has earned three straight FCS (formerly Division I-AA) playoff berths, tying for the fourth-longest current streak among FCS members.

The Panthers appear to be a longshot to nab a fourth consecutive playoff berth, but Spoo said: "We're not looking at that. We're trying to win our first OVC game."

Spoo pointed to several potential factors as contributing to the Panthers' rocky OVC start, including what he believes is an improved conference.

EIU's OVC losses have been to preseason favorite Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Martin. They are tied for second in the league.

"Without a doubt, this league is getting stronger," Spoo said.

Added Spoo when asked to explain EIU's struggles: "Gosh, I don't know. We thought going in [to the season] the experience at the linebacker position might be a little detriment.

"Other than that, we just haven't made the plays."

The Panthers' season statistics might be a bit skewed because they opened the campaign against two FBS (formerly Division I-A) teams in Central Michigan and Illinois.

Still, EIU ranks toward the bottom of the OVC in total offense (295.8 yards per game) and total defense (409.3).

EIU's traditionally stout defense is allowing a league-worst 228 yards rushing per game, which ranks 112th out of 118 FCS teams (Southeast is 101st, allowing 199 yards rushing per game).

The Panthers were gashed for 300 yards on the ground during last week's 29-26 loss at Tennessee-Martin that featured the Skyhawks' Brandyn Young piling up 213 yards and scoring four touchdowns.

"We had a tough time handling the run," Spoo said. "They ran the ball down our throat."

Of course, EIU's problems pale when compared to a Southeast program that has had just two winning seasons since moving up to the FCS level in 1991 and has not won more than four games in a season since 2003.

"They may be 0-2, but they're still a good football team," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said. "He's [Spoo] a great coach. Twenty-one years, you're talking about continuity."

Southeast trails the all-time series against EIU 11-4 and has not beaten the Panthers since 2003.

But the Redhawks had one of their better performances of last season during a 31-16 home loss to EIU as they led 16-14 in the third quarter before the Panthers rallied to win 31-16.

Southeast senior tailback Timmy Holloman, the program's fourth-leading career rusher, gained 133 yards in that contest and scored on a 52-yard run.

Holloman, who returned to action in Southeast's most recent game after serving a one-year NCAA suspension, has Spoo concerned. So does Southeast senior quarterback Houston Lillard, the OVC's leading passer.

"They throw the ball extremely well and they got back the running back who's got great speed," Spoo said. "We're playing a good Southeast Missouri team."

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