Eastern hosts Southern in home opener

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File Photo

Former Eastern defensive lineman Pat Wertz (left), red-shirt junior defensive tackle Dino Fanti (middle) and senior linebacker Robert Haynes sack former Southern Illinois-Carbondale quarterback Kory Faulkner in last year’s 40-37 double overtime win at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. Eastern Michigan transfer Mark Iannotti is the Salukis’ quarterback and is one of four new offensive starters.

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

The Eastern football team welcomes in-state rival Southern Illinois-Carbondale for the Panthers’ first home game of the season starting at 6 p.m. Saturday at O’Brien Field.

The series

Last year, Eastern played in Carbondale and after getting out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter the Panthers had to go into double overtime to win 40-37.

The three-point win was the closest game that Eastern played in last season not including its two losses.

With the victory, the Panthers clawed closer to the Salukis in the overall series, but Southern still has a 41-26-1 record against Eastern all-time. Southern also has a 16-15-1 record in Charleston.

Eastern head coach Kim Dameron was the defensive coordinator in 2000 for the Panthers, but did not face the Salukis that year. The last time he coached against Southern was in 1995, when he was the defensive coordinator for Murray State. The Racers won 35-3 in Carbondale.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Salukis on the other sideline,” Dameron said. “When I was at Southwest Missouri way back in the 80s we used to play them and that was back when coach (Rick) Rhoades was there running the wishbone.”

Eastern has won the last two matchups against Southern. The last time Eastern played host to the Salukis was in 2012, with the Panthers winning 49-28.

Since 2007, Southern has beaten Eastern three times, including twice in the FCS playoffs in 2007 and 2009. The Panthers also played the Salukis in the 2005 playoffs, coming away with the loss.

Salukis ranked in top-25

Saturday’s game at O’Brien Field marks the first time that Eastern and Southern play each other while being nationally ranked in the regular season. The Salukis are ranked No. 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll, while the Panthers are ranked No. 14 in that same poll and No. 16 in the Sports Network Poll.

“They are a quality football team,” Dameron said. “They’re well deserving of their ranking and are starting to move up in the rankings. We have a great deal of respect for them.”

Southern cracked the top-25 for the first time since Oct. 3, 2011. The last time both teams were ranked and played was in 2007, when the Salukis won 48-7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Last year, when Eastern won 40-37 in double overtime, the Panthers entered the game ranked No. 14.

New starters on offense

The Salukis have 18 total starters returning from last year’s 7-5 team, but they have four new starters on offense.

Mark Iannotti is Southern’s starting quarterback after Kory Faulkner started 19 games for the Salukis during the past two years. Faulkner threw four touchdown passes in last season’s loss to Eastern.

Iannotti is a transfer from Eastern Michigan, where he appeared in 12 games in 2013, but only attempted one pass. In the Salukis’ season opener against NAIA Taylor University, Iannotti threw two touchdowns and passed for 181 yards. He also threw an interception his Southern debut.

John Lantz is another starter that has to be replaced, as the wide receiver completed his senior season tied for the team lead in catches with 51 last year.

On defense Southern has nine of its 11 starts returning, losing only linebacker Bryan Presume and cornerback Terrell Wilson. Presume led the Salukis in tackles with 104 last season.

Salukis shutout Taylor

Southern started its season with a 45-0 win over Taylor University, which is the Salukis fifth shutout since their head coach Dale Lennon took over in 2008.

Along with Iannotti’s two touchdown passes, running back Malcolm Agnew had a big day scoring two rushing touchdowns. Agnew had seven carries for 145 yards, averaging 20.7 yards per attempt.

As a team, Southern rushed for 284 yards. Mika’il McCall also had a rushing touchdown to go along with his 80 yards on the ground.

The Salukis’ offense tallied 546 yards in total offense, while their defense allowed 141 yards and recorded five sacks and recovered a fumble.

The offense was not perfect, as Iannotti and backup quarterback Ryan West each threw an interception. Southern also lost a fumble.

Dameron said Eastern and Southern are in similar positions heading into Saturday’s game not knowing exactly how good they can be this season.

They’re looking at it as ‘we have a 45-0 win, but we still have question marks, or we’re still not sure how good we are,’” Dameron said. “With so many returning starters and same coaching they have, probably, a better idea than we do.”

As the 6 p.m. kickoff approaches, Dameron said the Panthers are focusing on their mistakes from their season opener. Eastern had some miscommunications in a couple of snaps and had a blocked punt against Minnesota. The Panthers committed three turnovers as well.

“We’re more concerned this week about making sure we fix the things we need to fix,” he said. “If we do that an continue to implement out system and doing the things we need to do, we feel good about our opportunity this week.”

Aldo Soto can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]