Football team ready for 2015 season

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

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One day at a time, one week at a time. That has been the mindset for the Eastern football team since fall camp began in the last few weeks. The Panthers open the season on Thursday, Sep. 3 at Western Illinois, which is the first meeting between the two schools since the 2002 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Following the season opener, the Panthers will travel to Evanston to take on Big Ten member Northwestern, before returning for the home opener against Illinois State on Saturday, September 19.

Northwestern finished 5-7 last season, and owned road victories over ranked teams Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Illinois State finished the 2014 season 13-2, including a 34-15 win over the Panthers last fall. The Redbirds finished the season as the national runner-up, after losing to fellow Missouri Valley Conference member and four-time champion North Dakota State.

“Illinois State is always a big rivalry for us,” Eastern coach Kim Dameron said. “They’ll probably be Top five or three in the country in the preseason. The good news is we have them at our place for our first home game.”

The Redbirds are currently ranked No. 2 in the FCS Preseason Poll and is one of three ranked teams the Panthers will face this season. However, the Panthers are not looking ahead to that game. Senior linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said that the team is focused on the schedule on a weekly basis.

“We want to win and take it game-by-game,” Grugier-Hill said. “Obviously we have some game-to-game goals but ultimately just go out there and win.”

Eastern finished the 2014 season with a 5-7 record, but return several key players this year. The return of those veteran players, and another year in Coach Dameron’s system, led many experts to rank the Panthers heading into the season.

The FCS Coaches Top 25 poll has the Panthers ranked No. 25 in the nation.

“Our biggest challenge is probably ourselves,” senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. “As long as we stay tight-knit, family first and take it one day at a time, I think we’ll be fine.”

Once Oho Valley Conference play begins the Panthers will open the season at Austin Peay on October 3. Eastern defeated Austin Peay 63-7 in last year’s OVC opener, which was also the first win of the season and Dameron’s first with the Panthers.

Eastern will return for its home conference opener on October 10 against Southeast Missouri, another team the Panthers beat last year. Dameron hopes that early success in the OVC season will lead to important matchups being played at O’Brien Stadium late in the season.

“When we get into the OVC conference race, it’s one at a time,” Dameron said. “Do the best we can do every week,and hopefully put ourselves into position to where we have some of the top teams in the conference coming into our place late to hopefully give us an advantage.”

Come November, the Panthers will have two home games against the two other ranked teams from the OVC. Jacksonville State comes into Charleston on Saturday, November 7, a year after it finished the OVC season with a perfect 8-0 record. The Gamecocks are ranked No. 9 in the FCS Coaches Poll.

The Panthers will also host preseason No. 9 ranked Eastern Kentucky on Saturday, November 21 on Senior Day. The Colonels also made the FCS playoffs as an at-large bid last season, and like Jacksonville State was eliminated after one round.

Dameron said that Eastern is pleased with the schedule and hopes those late games have some meaning late in the season.

“We feel good about that. Hopefully we’re in the position at the end of the year, to where that really matters,” Dameron said. “Our three non-conference days are big, but our goal every year is to win the OVC.”

Whitlow who earned the starting job, following non-conference play last season said that he is hoping for a fast start to this season, especially after the Panthers started off 1-5 last year.

“I’m looking at going into the season with a fast start, better than last year,” Whitlow said. “Don’t push it or look past one team, just take it one game at a time.”

Blake Nash can be reached at 581-5812 or [email protected]