Panthers and Redbirds square off in Mid-America Classic


Bryan Bund

Redshirt senior Devin Church avoids Western tackles Thursday, Sept. 1 at O’Brien Field. Church rushed for 42 yards on 12 attempts in the 38-21 loss.

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

One year ago Illinois State came into O’Brien Field, with a few things going their way late were able to steal a win from the Panthers on their own field.

Now, for redshirt senior running back Devin Church, it is the Panthers turn to go into Hancock Stadium and do the same to them. One of the bad breaks the Panthers got last year was a Church fumble on their opening drive in the overtime period.

Both Eastern and Illinois State came up with big FBS wins last weekend, which is adding to the intensity of this week’s game, Church said.

“If we go over there into their stadium and we beat them on their field, it’s going to be a huge win for us and be great for us going into conference,” he said.

The Panthers will open up Ohio Valley Conference play the following week with a home game on Family Weekend against Austin Peay.

Still a week away, Eastern’s focus is on Illinois State. The Panthers went into their game at Miami of Ohio after suffering a loss to Western, now they’re heading into Normal looking for a win.

Coach Kim Dameron said there was different excitement at practice on Tuesday.

“Our Tuesday practice had a little bit more juice to it than last Tuesday,” Dameron said.

One common trend through the first two games was being unable to get a solid running game going. Redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Kimble has had no problem throwing the ball, but Church and redshirt junior running back Korliss Marshall have yet to rush the ball into the end zone.

Kimble has the teams only rushing touchdown.

Church and Marshall have both seen playing time, and after having an improved game running the ball against Miami, Church only sees it getting better.

Having the slow start on the ground the Panthers have had, it would be easy to get discouraged, but Church said to get better is to not let that happen. Eastern has just 144 combined rushing yards between the two backs.

The running game started slow for the Panthers last year as well, and Church had his first 100-yard rushing game against Illinois State, three games into the season and he plans on doing the same this week.

“Of course you want those big runs, but it comes,” Church said. “I’m just trying to get the first down and trying to help the team any way possible. I’m not too concerned about my stats. As long as we’re getting that win, that’s all I care about.”

Church may not have a rushing touchdown this season, but he did catch Kimble’s pass last week for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 56 seconds left to win the game.

Marshall, in his first season with the Panthers after redshirting in 2015 after he transferred from Arkansas, gives the Eastern two steady options at the running back position.

“We have a little rotation going,” Church said. “I may get a run, get a little winded, Korliss will come in and get a run. We’re just going back-and-forth with it. We were cool when he got here and even better now.”

As far as Illinois State, all of their pieces are in place, Dameron said. Illinois State is 2-0 to start the season.

“There’s really nothing that they don’t have offensively,” he said. “It’s going to really test our defense. We just have to tackle well. If we tackle we’ll have a chance to be successful.”

The Panthers and Redbirds are set for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff in Normal at Hancock Stadium.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]