Southeast Missouri State football team visits OVC's top surprise in Eastern Illinois

Friday, November 9, 2012

Eastern Illinois is by far the biggest surprise team of the Ohio Valley Conference football season.

The Panthers are probably among the biggest surprise squads in all of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Southeast Missouri State gets a chance to derail EIU's OVC title hopes Saturday when the squads square off at 11 a.m. in Charleston, Ill.

The game will be televised nationally by Fox College Sports as part of the OVC's weekly TV package with the network.

"To get on a national scene is always big," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said. "It's great for the conference and it's great for us."

Southeast (3-6, 2-4 OVC) is mired toward the bottom of the league standings, as was predicted in the preseason poll. The Redhawks are seventh in the nine-team OVC.

EIU (6-3, 5-1) is tied for first with Tennessee-Martin -- which certainly was not predicted entering the campaign.

The Panthers finished last in the conference a year ago, when they went 2-9 overall and 1-7 in league play. They were picked eighth this season, one spot behind Southeast.

Enter first-year EIU coach Dino Babers, a former Panthers assistant who was most recently an assistant at Baylor.

Babers took over at EIU for the legendary Bob Spoo, among the most successful football coaches in OVC history who retired on the heels of consecutive 2-9 seasons.

All Babers has done is put the Panthers in a position to earn at least a share of the OVC title, which they would do by beating Southeast.

"We had no idea these things would happen," Babers said. "The kids are playing really hard. Things have fell into place."

Saturday's game will mark the Panthers' final OVC contest. EIU and Tennessee State don't face each other this season, meaning those squads play only seven conference games.

If the Panthers and UT-Martin finish tied for first with one league loss, then the Skyhawks earn the league's automatic FCS playoff berth based on their win over EIU. The Panthers would then have to hope for an at-large playoff bid.

UT-Martin still has two OVC games left, at Tennessee Tech and at home against Tennessee State.

"I'm not surprised," Samuel said of what EIU has done so far this season. "You knew the quarterback was good. They're juniors and seniors for the most part."

EIU's quarterback has been more than good.

Junior Jimmy Garoppolo has thrived directing Babers' up-tempo, spread attack. He has completed 60.8 percent (262 of 431) for 3,117 yards, 25 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He ranks fourth nationally in total offense and is fourth on the OVC's career touchdown passing list with 59.

"He's got good size and a quick release. He can get the ball out quick," Samuel said. "He fits what they like to do. They play at a fast tempo. That new staff is doing a real good job."

Garoppolo also has plenty of experience in his favor. He was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and took his share of lumps.

Samuel recalls Southeast's 2010 game at EIU when the Redhawks intercepted Garoppolo four times during their 28-13 victory -- Southeast's only win in Charleston, Ill., since both teams have been in the OVC.

"We were able to pick on him as a freshman," Samuel said. "But you knew he was going to be a good one."

Garoppolo has plenty of weapons.

Junior wide receiver Erik Lora leads the nation with 100 catches, an OVC single-season record. He is just the 17th player in FCS history to have at least 100 receptions in a season.

Senior wideout Chris Wright has caught 46 passes.

The Panthers also have a dangerous tailback in senior Jake Walker. He has rushed for 810 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

Lora and Walker both have scored 10 touchdowns. Wright is close behind with eight.

EIU leads the OVC in total offense with 505.2 yards per game and is second in scoring offense with 39.9 points per game, just behind Murray State's 40.6 average.

The Panthers are fifth nationally in total offense and seventh in scoring offense. They have scored 50 points or more three times this season, with a high of 65.

"There's not a lot of people slowing them down. They're putting up a lot of points," Samuel said. "You try to keep that offense off the field. That's more than half the battle."

While EIU's offense has been strong all year, Samuel believes the Panthers' defense is underrated. They have allowed just 31 points the past two games and held Eastern Kentucky to only seven points.

"We've got a defense that is getting better," Babers said.

EIU's defense is led by sophomore linebacker Robert Haynes, the OVC's third-leading tackler with 88, and senior end Artavious Dowdell, who leads the league with 4.5 quarterback sacks and has eight tackles for loss.

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