Football team face No. 1 team

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Football team face No. 1 team

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow has completed 122 passes for 1,450 yards in eight games during the season.

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow has completed 122 passes for 1,450 yards in eight games during the season.

Jason Howell

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow has completed 122 passes for 1,450 yards in eight games during the season.

Jason Howell

Jason Howell

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow has completed 122 passes for 1,450 yards in eight games during the season.

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

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It only takes one for the Eastern football team this Saturday.

One victory over Jacksonville State puts the Panthers in the driver’s seat of first place in the Ohio Valley Conference, and one win would dethrone the Gamecocks, who have been ranked No. 1 in the FCS since September.

Only one team has been able to defeat Jacksonville State this year. An overtime loss to Auburn, a game in which the Gamecocks led for most of the game, remains the lone blemish on their record.

But this Saturday, they will play an Eastern team that has been unbeaten in the OVC all season, and has waited all year for this opportunity to defeat one of the conference’s best teams.

“We’ve fought very hard over the last five weeks to get to this position, where we’re one of two undefeated teams in the league,” Eastern coach Kim Dameron said.

This is the second year in a row that these two teams have met late in the season, with conference championship implications depending on the outcome. Jacksonville State won last year’s matchup in Jacksonville, Ala. by a score of 27-20.

It has been a pattern in recent years, having both these teams competing for the OVC crown late in the season. Both have combined for nine of the last 12 conference championships since the Gamecocks joined the OVC in 2003.

Red-shirt senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti won one of those championships in 2013, and said that the key to the Panthers’ recent success has been execution, not just skill.

“It’s not about us being better athletes, or being stronger or faster,” Fanti said. “It’s about us doing our job better than them.”

The Gamecocks have the best offense in the OVC, averaging over 500 yards of offense and 39.8 points per game this season. If that were not enough to describe their season so far, spectators only need to look at the Gamecocks’ defensive stats.

Jacksonville State is first in the conference in several defensive categories, including scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

Eastern has averaged 206 yards on the ground through eight games this season, with junior transfer Devin Church leading the way with 568 yards on 110 carries. Only the Gamecocks, who average 270 yards on the ground, rank ahead of the Panthers.

For Dameron and the Panthers, being their best gives Eastern an advantage on Saturday.

“We have to make sure we’re the best Eastern Illinois football team we can be, when we take the field because that’s the only chance we have,” Dameron said.

Fanti leads all Panther defensive linemen with 43 tackles, including 13 for loss.

Fanti recorded four tackles for loss last week, becoming the all-time leader in school history.

His head coach said that Fanti’s intelligence has also been a part of his record-breaking career.

“He’s not a guy that just runs around like a blind dog in a meat house,” Dameron said. “He studies the game extremely well and knows our defense, as well as opponents’ offensive line and formations.”

Jacksonville State’s offensive personnel remind  Dameron of another familiar opponent.  Quarterback Eli Jenkins and running back Troymaine Pope are similar to Illinois State’s quarterback and running back combo of Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich.

“It doesn’t matter what team you watch them play on film. They’re extremely fast and physical,” Dameron said.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.  Saturday at O’Brien Field.

 

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