Panthers host Redbirds in 104th Mid-America Classic


Jason Howell

Northwestern’s Mike McHugh and red-shirt senior defensive back Antoine Johnson leap for the ball during Eastern’s 41-0 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

The time for excuses has passed for the Eastern football team, as the Panthers host Illinois State for the annual Mid-America Classic at 7 p.m. on Saturday at O’Brien Field.

After starting the season with two-straight losses followed by a matchup with last year’s national runner-up this weekend, coach Kim Dameron said that it is time for the Panthers to do their job.

“We just have to do our job,” Dameron said. “We can no longer use the excuse, ‘We’re new and all that;’ We just got to be, ‘Hey let’s go play.’”

The Redbirds come onto O’Brien Field on Saturday ranked No. 5 in the latest Football Championship Subdivision poll. Their offense features All-American senior running back Marshaun Coprich and senior quarterback Tre Roberson.

That duo has helped Illinois State average 40 points per game and 372 yards per game through the first two weeks of the season.

By looking at the Redbirds’ running game this week, redshirt senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti knows that the Panthers need to contain both Roberson and Coprich.

“You can’t take anything away from the running back. When both he and Roberson are in there, you have to account for both of them,” Fanti said. “Their offensive line is pretty young, so hopefully we can take advantage of that.

Fanti has recorded eight tackles per game in the first two weeks of the season, including two for a loss. He has been a part of this rivalry game before, which has reached 104 years, as has Illinois State senior linebacker Pat Meehan.

Meehan is one of the leaders on team with 11 tackles. He was named a preseason second team All-American by STATS heading into the season. Meehan will see some new faces on the Panthers’ offense including redshirt junior Devin Church.

Church has averaged 46 yards per game this season, including a season-high 63 yards on 11 carries in a loss at Northwestern Saturday.

He has become an option in the passing game as well, catching six passes for 43 yards out of the backfield.

Church said that despite the rough start to the season, the Panthers’ veteran players have been trying to keep a positive vibe flowing throughout the team. A pair of good practices early this week also has the team feeling good about its chances on Saturday.

“Being 0-2, a lot of people usually stick their head down and point fingers. But here everybody’s been coming together and trying to stay positive,” Church said. “We’re saying we’re going to win this game, and that the offense is going to get in the end zone.”

The Eastern offense has been kept out of the end zone so far this season, but Dameron said that everyone is committed to keep running the offense the way it should be. The offense needs to be consistent and finish plays and drives in this week and the future.

Dameron said that he is still looking to get the ball in the hands of multiple running backs this week, including redshirt senior Shepard Little and graduate student Jerron Seymour. Little was limited in the game against Northwester after getting a concussion against Western.

Little did not practice until Friday.

“He’s lucky he played at all last week, but he wasn’t himself,” Dameron said. “This week he’s practiced all week, and he’ll be fine this week.”

Senior cornerback Anthony Goodman is questionable for Saturday after sustaining an injury at Northwestern.

Defensively, Dameron said the Panthers have to be aware of Roberson’s scrambling ability. He has rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries, but he can also find receivers while on the run.

He added that the Panthers will have to take good angles to the ball to stop him.

“He’s going to out-athlete you sometimes and we’ve just got to have 11 guys around the ball,” Dameron said. “It comes down to effort and angles.”

This will be the final non-conference game for the Panthers, who have lost 9 of their last 13 games against the Redbirds. It is a rivalry that dates back to 1901, and Fanti said that a doctor’s appointment should be made if fans, coaches and players are not excited for this one.

“It’s one of those things if you can’t get up for ISU you should go to the doctor and have your pulse checked,” Fanti said. “Every time we play them it’s usually a good game, so it’s important this week.”


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