Panthers renew football rivalry with Western Illinois

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

An in-state rivalry will be reborn on a football field in Macomb, Ill. on Thursday night. The Eastern football team will take on Western Illinois for the first game of the season.

Both teams finished the 2014 season with identical 5-7 records, and the similarities between the two teams doesn’t end there.

“Obviously they are just like us. They’ve had to fill some holes, and we’ll see how good they’ve filled those holes,” Dameron said. “We’ve had to replace our run game with some new faces, and we know we’re going into a pretty darn good defense.”

The Panthers will have a familiar face in the backfield on Thursday. Redshirt senior Shepard Little returns after being named as an All-Ohio Valley Conference first teamer in the offseason.

Little feels that he, newcomer Devin Church and the other new faces in the Eastern backfield can attack the Western defense.

“I feel like me, Devin and everybody else who can touch the ball attack their defense,” Little said. “Because we’ve got a bunch of guys who can play fast.”

Dameron said that he wants the Panthers to play fast, so that they can play as many plays as they can. The Leathernecks’ size is another reason for Dameron wanting the Panthers to have an up-tempo style of play, but to do that they do some things on offense first.

“To play fast and make a lot of plays, you’ve got to be making first downs,” Dameron said. “Offensively we’ve got to protect the football and we’ve got to make yards and score points.”

Junior quarterback Trenton Norvell, who compiled 2,891 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, leads the Western Illinois offense. He had a career-high 29 completions last season at Northwestern, a team that Eastern will see this season.

Norvell will be joined in the Leatherneck offensive huddle by junior wide receiver Lance Lenoir. Lenoir was named to the Missouri Valley Conference first team last season, after recording 1,030 yards and seven touchdowns.

Dameron said that there is not a particular defender, who will be tasked with guarding Lenior, but Eastern does have one defensive back that played with him in high school. The Panthers have to identify where he is on the field at all times.

“You just have to know where he is, the types of routes that he starts to run,” Dameron said. “Then again they may be moving him around more this year, than they did in the past.”

But to determine what Lenoir’s performance will be, the Panthers need to pressure his quarterback Norvell. Red shirt senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti will be one of those players trying to pressure him.

“There’s always a big emphasis on that, especially since they’re a zone team,” Fanti said. “You’ve got to rely on your defensive ends not to get kicked out (from the pocket). That’s a big point that we’re emphasizing in practice.”

Dameron said that there are many things the Panthers need to do to challenge Norvell. That includes affecting his feet as he delivers the ball, collapsing the pocket around him and containing him when starts to move.

“If we can do that we’ll be successful,” Dameron said. “But if we can’t do that then we’re not going to have a good night.”

Eastern is one of six teams in the Ohio Valley Conference that will not open the season with a Football Championship Subdivision team. Tennessee Tech will open the season at Houston on Sunday, while Tennessee-Martin and Southeast Missouri will be opening its seasons against a pair of ranked Southeaster Conference teams.

The Skyhawks will play No. 15 ranked Ole Miss, while the Redhawks will face in-state foe No. 23 ranked Missouri. The Panthers are familiar with Ole Miss, being that Defensive Coordinator Kane Wommack’s father is the Rebel’s defensive coordinator.

Dameron said that that is a tough situation for any FCS school to walk into, but believes that the Skyhawks will give a great effort.

“Martin’s got a pretty good football team coming back,” Dameron said. “They’ll play hard, but it’s always hard when you go into that type of situation. It is what it is in college football these days.”

Eastern will not play UT-Martin until November 14, so its focus will be on Western Illinois this week, and playing a team that they haven’t seen since the 2002 FCS playoffs.

“The two schools have great history and it goes back forever and ever,
Dameron said. “We’re looking forward to the contest.”

Eastern Panther football will be opening on a Thursday night this year. This is the 16th time in school history this has happened. Eastern is 10-5 in those Thursday night openers.


Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]