Since the first game of the season, a 33-5 loss to Western Illinois, the Eastern football team has changed the theme of the season to being more focused on the team itself.
Head coach Kim Dameron said that it is now time to focus on what the Panthers can do every day this week, which concludes with a road game at Austin Peay.
“It is exciting to be back in the league, and all our goals and aspirations are ahead of us,” Dameron said. “But if we can’t take care of what we can today and this week, we can kiss all that goodbye.”
The Panthers began the season ranked No. 25 in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches poll, but fell out after losing their first three games.
They will face the winless Governors on Saturday in the Ohio Valley Conference opener.
The Panthers are coming off a bye week after losing in overtime, 33-30, in their home opener against Illinois State. Dameron and Whitlow acknowledged that the team did improve in the last game. Whitlow said that the passing game seemed to gel.
“We’ve got to continue to gel and get some guys back, and get everybody healthy,” Whitlow said. “If we do that I feel we can come along pretty well.”
Whitlow completed 16-of-28 passes for 165 yards, and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to red-shirt junior wide receiver Anthony Taylor. He also had a completion percentage of 57.1 percent, his highest of the season.
Despite the Panthers having a bye week after playing their best game of the season, Whitlow thinks that having last week off will do the Panthers more good than harm.
“We’ve got some guys banged up and everything,” Whitlow said. “We need some guys to get healthy, and now they’ve got the chance to heal.”
The Governors lost their first four games by at least 21 points, including two defeats at the hands of two Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Southern Mississippi and Kentucky.
Their last loss was to Eastern Kentucky, 51-13, in their OVC opener, which ended a three-game road swing.
“They’ve had a touch schedule. From what I’ve seen they’ve got some explosive kids, offensively,” Dameron said. “They’re a lot like us, really. If they put it together, they can score some points.”
The Governors’ offense features red-shirt senior quarterback Trey Taylor, who averages 123 passing yards per game. Junior wide receiver Rashaan Coleman has caught two of Taylor’s three touchdown passes.
When talking about his own receiving corps, Dameron said that he agrees with Whitlow that the passing game is getting better for the Panthers.
“Our new receivers are getting in sync with our quarterback a little more,” Whitlow said. “When you have some new faces, it takes a little while to get everybody on the same page.”
Red-shirt junior wide receiver Isaiah Nelson has emerged as the Panthers go-to option in the passing game, catching 11 passes for 162 yards in his first season with the Panthers.
Nelson transferred in from LA Pierce College in Los Angeles.
“I think I’ve caught most of my passes on ‘Z Cruise,’” Nelson said. “They try to get me in open space, and let me do what I do.”
For the Panthers as a whole, everyone needs to focus on doing what they do, Dameron said. Dameron wants his team to play better in the kicking game, in tackling, and being in the right place and controlling the ball on offense.
“This is a team game and we’ve got to make sure we control the score as a team,” Dameron said.
In last year’s game against the Governors, Eastern walked away with a 63-7 victory at O’Brien Field, the first win of Dameron’s head coaching career. It was also the first time Whitlow played a full game as starting quarterback.
But Whitlow is not relying on past success as he prepares for this game and those in the future.
“I just try to execute the play that’s called,” Whitlow said. “If my number’s called I’ll run it to the best of my ability.”
Whitlow and the Panthers will kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday at Governors Stadium in Clarksville, Tenn.
Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]