The Eastern football team won its final regular season game Saturday, defeating Eastern Kentucky 21-7, to finish the season in second place in the Ohio Valley Conference. However, it might not be the last game of the season for the Panthers.
The FCS playoffs begin next week, with the selection show taking place at 10 a.m. Sunday. The fate of the Panthers postseason will depend on the selection results. Eastern only lost one OVC game this season, and finished the year winning seven of its last nine games. Eastern coach Kim Dameron said that the strong finish to the season, should speak well enough for playoff consideration.
“I’ve got to believe with our league, we’ve got the No. 1 team in the country in the OVC, and we’re the second place team with one loss,” Dameron said. “If you look at the last nine games we’ve lost to No. 5 Illinois State in overtime and Jacksonville State. But since the early season losses to Western Illinois and Northwestern, I think we’ve been one of the best teams in the country.
The Panthers were the first to enter the scoring column on Saturday, when senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow ran to the corner of the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown during the second quarter. That was set up by a 34-yard carry by red-shirt sophomore running back Malik Harrison, who was filling in for the injured Shepard Little.
Harrison led the Eastern ground attack with 79 yards on 13 carries, and scored on a nine-yard touchdown of his own in the third quarter. Harrison had rushed for 141 yards on eight carries prior to Saturday’s game, which was played in snowy and windy conditions. Harrison said the elements helped him have the day that he did.
“I was thinking this was going to be our time to shine,” Harrison said. “Coach Nutt says that every week he’ll put us all in the rotation to keep this running game going. That’s what I was hoping and wishing for.”
Harrison was filling in for red-shirt senior running back Shepard Little, who was also inactive Saturday. Dameron said that he was proud of the Panthers rushing attack for filling in well for the injured, and moving the ball, especially when the elements were plaguing the passing game.
“We still didn’t throw and catch the way we need to,” Dameron said. “I know the weather had an effect on the passing game in the first half, when it was snowing and there was wind. But as the day progressed it played a lesser role.”
Harrison wasn’t the only backup to have a solid day. Red-shirt sophomore linebacker Nick Horne recorded four tackles, including one for loss, and he was able to find his way to the end zone in the third quarter.
Red-shirt senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti delivered a huge hit to Eastern Kentucky quarterback Kyle Romano, who fumbled the ball. Horne scooped it up and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown, which gave Eastern a 14-0 lead. Romano was injured following the hit, and left the game on a stretcher.
Starting quarterback Bennie Coney left the game with a leg injury the previous play, after taking a hit from defensive end Thomas Coronado. Fanti, the national player of the week, finished with five tackles, four for loss and made two sacks on Senior Day at O’Brien Field.
Horne, who was starting for the second consecutive week, finished with four tackles, including one loss and half a sack. Senior linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill was sidelined with an injury, but Horne said that the lessons he learned from him and junior linebacker Seth McDonald, have helped him transition from safety to linebacker this season.
“They took me in like a little brother and Kamu taught me everything about playing linebacker,” Horne said. I played on nerves today but they have so much confidence in me. When I get there they tell me just to play. Don’t worry about missing your assignment, just play your ball.”
Sophomore defensive back Bradley Dewberry led the Panthers defense with eight tackles, and picked off two passes, including one in the final seconds in the end zone that won the game. The Eastern secondary recorded five interceptions, while the defense forced six turnovers the whole game.
As of tomorrow, the Panthers focus will be on the FCS playoff selection show, which will be shown on ESPNU at 10 a.m.
Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]