Panthers exploit defenses looking to slow down Whitlow


Jason Howell

Red-shirt senior running back Taylor Duncan runs the ball during the Panthers’ 48-26 win over Murray State on Saturday at O’Brien Field. Duncan scored two touchdowns and ran for 171 yards during the game.

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

Eastern quarterback Jalen Whitlow has a season-low 20 rushing yards in the Panthers win over Murray State Saturday, but the junior extended his streak of throwing a touchdown and rushing for a touchdown to six games in Ohio Valley Conference play.

Improving to 5-1 in the OVC, the Panthers’ offense was too much for the Racers, as Eastern won 48-20 at O’Brien Field.

Whitlow scrambled on third and goal from the one-yard line, ran about 12 total yards before finding an opening and scoring the Panthers’ seventh touchdown that gave Eastern a 48-20 lead, with 11:06 left in the fourth quarter. That was Whitlow’s ninth carry of the afternoon and his last play of the game, as Eastern coach Kim Dameron sent senior Andrew Manley to finish the remainder of the game.

Although he only had 20 rushing yards, Whitlow threw for a career-high 312 passing yards, three touchdowns, completing 27-of-37 attempts.

Whitlow was named OVC Newcomer of the Week for the sixth time this season.

Despite a mediocre running performance for Whitlow, who averages 76 rushing yards per game in the OVC, the Panthers ran for 342 yards, including Taylor Duncan’s season-high 171 on 30 carries.

Before Shepard Little left the game in the first quarter, he had 57 yards on the ground on eight carries. As a team, Eastern averaged 5.3 yards per carry against Murray State.

Dameron said defenses are starting to look at Whitlow first in the running game, which is opening more opportunities for the Panthers’ running backs.

“You look at the rushing totals and you see that Jalen Whitlow had nine rushes for only (20) yards, well that tells me the reason why our running backs are running so much better now,” Dameron said. “Everyone is keying in on No. 2 and making sure he doesn’t beat them in the run game and we just hand it off and go outside or up the middle.”

With Whitlow’s rushing touchdown and three passing touchdowns, he ranks near the top of the OVC in both categories. The junior quarterback has the second most rushing touchdowns in conference play with nine and with 14 passing touchdowns he is two shy of Murray State’s KD Humphries for the league lead.

Eastern Kentucky running back Dy’Shawn Mobley leads the conference with 13 rushing touchdowns.

In the past two weeks, Whitlow has thrown for a combined 599 yards, seven touchdowns, while being intercepted only once and completing 75.4 percent of his pass attempts. Yet, after Saturday’s win he gave all the credit to his offensive linemen.

“Those guys make us go as an offense,” Whitlow said. “Those o-linemen are our cowbells up here.”

Duncan’s performance also caught the eye of Whitlow, as the Marshall native scored two rushing touchdowns and added three catches for 17 yards.

“Our o-line put him in a great position, but even when guys were right there he made them miss or ran them over,” Whitlow said. “He’s a great back. He’s a huge back too, so I’m sure those safeties coming down kind of hesitate when they have to tackle him.”

Eastern has won four straight conference games, which has enabled the Panthers to stay in title contention.

Jacksonville State knocked off Eastern Kentucky on the road 20-6 on Saturday in Richmond, Ky., that helped the Panthers’ chances of winning their third OVC championship in a row, or at least a share of it.

Eastern still needs to win its final two games of the season to clinch a share of the conference crown that includes its 3 p.m. kickoff Saturday in Jacksonville, Ala., where the Gamecocks await with their perfect 6-0 conference record. At 8-1 overall, Jacksonville State’s only loss came in its first game of the season at Michigan State, where it lost 45-7. Since then, the Gamecocks have won eight straight games and are currently ranked No. 3 in both major FCS polls.

After beginning the season 1-5, Eastern could put itself in prime position to three-peat if it can beat Jacksonville State.

Senior linebacker Adam Gristick has been on the field the last two years, when the Panthers have sealed their OVC titles. Although, he and other teammates will not admit that they were looking ahead to Jacksonville State, the matchup was certainly lurking somewhere in their minds.

“It’s a big turn around, I guess, but this is what we were looking for all season,” Gristick said. “Like Jalen said, we were taking every game week by week, but I know in the back of my mind I was waiting to play this game. We’re going to get their best and they’re going to get out best and see who is going to win the conference.”

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