Turnovers, penalties continue to hurt Eastern football

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MacKenzie Freund | The Daily Eastern News Red-shirt senior quarterback Andrew Manley surveys the field, as senior left tackle Adolphus Barnes tries to block an Illinois State defensive end. Manley made his first start of the year Saturday and finished 9-of-15 for 55 yards, while throwing an interception in the first half.

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

The Eastern football team played a different opponent in a different stadium, but the Panthers had to deal with the same problems — turnovers and penalties.

For the third straight game the Panthers’ offense outgained their opponent, but with five turnovers and 11 penalties Eastern lost to Illinois State 34-15 Saturday at Hancock Stadium in Normal.

Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow began the third quarter on the field with the Panthers’ offense, leading them on an 80-yard drive. Red-shirt senior running back Taylor Duncan began the series with a 15-yard run and then Whitlow connected with red-shirt freshman Anthony Taylor for a 40-yard pass.

After Duncan rushed for 11 yards, Whitlow took the next snap and kept it, running up the middle and scoring his first touchdown as a Panther from the 14-yard line.

The lightning quick four-play drive brought Eastern within eight points of Illinois State with 13:26 in the third quarter, but it was the first and only time the Panthers’ offense celebrated in the end zone.

After the Eastern defense forced a three and out, the Panthers’ started their next drive at midfield down 21-13.

A first-down catch by tight end Jeff LePak, pushed the Panthers inside the Redbirds’ 40-yard line. Following a false start penalty on second down, the Panthers were left with a third down and five at the Illinois State 32-yard line.

Whitlow stepped back and threw a pass intended for LePak, but Illinois State linebacker Alex Donnelly had underneath coverage and intercepted the pass after a defensive lineman deflected it. Donnelly returned the interception to the Eastern 15-yard line, leading to a Nick Aussieker 25-yard field goal.

Leading 24-13 with 7:30 left in the third quarter, the Redbirds’ defense came up with another turnover less than two minutes later.

The Panthers were at their own 41-yard line facing another third down, when Whitlow once again looked for LePak for the first down. This time Whitlow’s pass wasn’t tipped.

“It was a middle screen and their defensive end read it and made a nice play,” LePak said.

The Redbirds brought a blitz on the play, while Teddy Corwin was one of two Illinois State defensive linemen that dropped back in coverage. He happened to be in the right spot, where LePak was about to cross the middle of the field at the 40-yard line.

Again, the turnover led to more points, as Indiana transfer quarterback Tre Roberson threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Lechein Neblett two plays later, giving Illinois State a 31-13 lead, scoring 10 points within four minutes in the third quarter.

In the first half, red-shirt senior Andrew Manley received his first start as Eastern’s quarterback.

After Neblett caught his first touchdown, a 61-yard pass from Roberson to make it 14-3 Illinois State up with 8:44 left in the second quarter, Manley drove Eastern deep into Redbirds territory.

With 5:13 left before halftime, Illinois State called a timeout as the Panthers’ offense was on the field getting ready to go for it on fourth and one just nine yards away from the end zone.

Following the timeout flags littered the field. Eastern’s fourth and one became a fourth and six after a substitution penalty. Panthers’ coach Kim Dameron pulled the offense off the field and settled for a field goal, but not before Eastern was forced to move back five more yards because of a delay of game penalty.

“It’s a combination of both – some of it is being on different pages and some of it is just mental mistakes,” LePak said of Eastern’s penalties.

Nick Bruno made the 36-yard field goal – the second time in the first half he connected from that distance. It also happened to be the second time he came on the field after a costly penalty.

Trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter, Whitlow threw a three-yard touchdown to Duncan that was immediately negated because junior wide receiver Keiondre Gober was called for pass interference.

Bruno made his first field goal after Eastern was pushed back to the 19-yard line and could not convert on third and goal.

The Panthers’ last possession of the first half also resulted in a Manley interception, which led to a Marshaun Coprich two-yard touchdown run with five seconds left before halftime that put Illinois State ahead 21-6.

“We killed ourselves with penalties and turnovers,” LePak said.

The 11 penalties called on Eastern cost the team 90 yards. In their home opener, Eastern was penalized 84 yards on 11 flags.

Illinois State gained 326 yards of offense and allowed 385 to Eastern, making the Redbirds the third consecutive team to gain fewer yards and still beat the Panthers.

The Panthers had two turnovers in the fourth quarter, including a Duncan fumble at the one-yard line of Illinois State. That turnover marked the third time Eastern has committed a turnover inside the opposing team’s 10-yard line this season.

The Panthers lost the turnover battle 5-1, and now have a minus seven turnover margin that is ranked No. 6 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Under a new coaching staff, LePak said the offense has transitioned well enough but has to cut down on its mistakes.

“I think we’ve adjusted to the system fine,” he said. “We just have to execute and avoid penalties.”

 

Aldo Soto (@AldoSoto21) can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]