Football team controls own destiny following win


Jason Howell

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw six passes for 55 yards and rushed 81 yards during the Panthers’ 24-3 loss to Jacksonville State on Nov. 7 at O’Brien Field. The Panthers Tennessee-Martin 23-21 in Martin, Tenn. Whitlow ran for 142 yards and passed for 80 yards during the game.

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

Last week’s victory by the Eastern football team came at an opportune time for the Panthers. Eastern had lost its first Ohio Valley Conference game to No. 1 Jacksonville State the week before and the hopes for a postseason berth got slimmer.

But a 23-21 victory over Tennessee-Martin on Saturday resulted in the Panthers being the only one-loss team in the OVC. A victory over Eastern Kentucky this week will result in a second-place finish in the conference and a possible FCS playoff berth, coach Kim Dameron said.

“We are extremely excited to be at this point,” Dameron said. “This is what we fought our rear-ends off for all fall, a game late in the year with playoff implications.”

If Eastern wins, it will be in the running for an at-large bid, but Dameron feels that its record is decent enough for consideration. In the last nine weeks, Eastern lost to a Top 10 ranked Illinois State in overtime, and were defeated by the OVC regular season champion Jacksonville State.

“We would’ve been 7-2 in that last stretch,” Dameron said. “Saying that, none of it matters. We’re not talking about that, other than that is where we would like to get to. Our hardest part is just finishing it off.”

For seniors such as running back Shepard Little, defensive tackle Dino Fanti and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, this will be their last chance to compete in the FCS playoffs. All three were part of the Panthers’ 2013-14 team that made it to the FCS quarterfinals after being nationally ranked for most of the regular season.

Fanti also earned attention from the nation after being named the STATS national defensive player of the week, following the win at Tennessee-Martin, a game that Fanti changed late in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers were leading the Skyhawks, 20-19, when Fanti rushed through the line and hit Tennessee-Martin quarterback Jarod Neal. Neal was looking to throw short and to his right, but the hit by Fanti forced the ball to float through the air and into the hands of defensive end Thomas Coronado.

Coronado, a senior, raced 45 yards down the field to make it a seven-point Eastern lead. That would not be the last time that Fanti met Neal in the backfield on Saturday. The Skyhawks scored a touchdown with 4:51 left to play and were going for two to tie the game.

Neal took the snap and was forced to scramble. Eventually he went left where Fanti had broken through the line. Fanti brought him down near the line of scrimmage to help preserve the victory. Dameron said he was pleased with Fanti’s performance and said his ability to play up and down the defensive line helps defensive coordinator Kane Wommack strategize for games.

“Coach Wommack does a great job of moving him on the line and in the right spot on pass rush situations,” Dameron said. “He is a heck of a young man. He is smart and plays with tremendous effort and intensity.”

Fanti recorded seven tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a sack against the Skyhawks. He ranks eighth nationally in tackles for loss with 17, and has already broken the school’s career record for that category. He needs only two more to break the single-season record.

Even with last week’s success, the Panthers are not thinking they are in the postseason yet, Dameron said. They still need one more win and it will have to come against a Colonels team that has only lost two OVC games this season.

“We have one more game that we have to win against a team that is used to playing those type of games,” Dameron said. “We are not thinking in any shape, form or fashion that we’re there.”


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