Eastern set for big game with Redbirds

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Eastern set for big game with Redbirds

Redshirt senior safety Tray Mitchell breaks  a Northern tackle and tries to stiff arm another player on his punt return in the Panthers’ 38-10 loss. Eastern hosts Illinois State this weekend for its home opener.

Redshirt senior safety Tray Mitchell breaks a Northern tackle and tries to stiff arm another player on his punt return in the Panthers’ 38-10 loss. Eastern hosts Illinois State this weekend for its home opener.

Sean Hastings

Redshirt senior safety Tray Mitchell breaks a Northern tackle and tries to stiff arm another player on his punt return in the Panthers’ 38-10 loss. Eastern hosts Illinois State this weekend for its home opener.

Sean Hastings

Sean Hastings

Redshirt senior safety Tray Mitchell breaks a Northern tackle and tries to stiff arm another player on his punt return in the Panthers’ 38-10 loss. Eastern hosts Illinois State this weekend for its home opener.

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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It is not an Ohio Valley Conference matchup, but it is the battle for the Mid America Classic Trophy between two in-state rivals, Eastern and Illinois State.

Eastern had a let-down game last week and Illinois State is coming off a bye leading up to the home opener Saturday at O’Brien Field.

The Panthers are the owners of the Mid America Classic Trophy now after a 24-21 win at Illinois State last year. Eastern led for much of the game, but a late push made it a closer final score.

It is the Panthers’ home opener, Family Weekend, and brings a little bit more to the table than any other regular season game.

“We’ll have a good crowd,” coach Kim Dameron said. “It’s a big game. I told our kids it’s like a playoff atmosphere, it’s like a playoff game. That’s what we’re approaching it like, but our preparation is really not any different than any other game.”

Since he has been here the biggest thing Dameron has preached is to not turn the ball over and the Panthers did not follow that last weekend.

Eastern turned the ball over three times.

“We can’t turn it over, we can’t,” Dameron said. “We also need to create turnovers defensively. But the biggest focus for us offensively has been getting in sync, get going, be at the right spot at the right time and doing the right thing.”

In week one, Illinois State won 45-0 over Butler and allowed just 41 yards to the Bulldogs. That stat is something that is not seen everyday, but that does not concern Eastern.

It comes down to what Eastern knows about them and the Redbirds bring back essentially the same team the Panthers’ played last year.

“They’ve got a good stable of (running) backs, they’ve got tight end and they’ve got a heck of a quarterback,” Dameron said. “We know that, regardless of what happened in week one. I’d have been totally shocked if that hadn’t have happened because I know what type of football team they have.”

A big part of Eastern’s offense runs through junior running back Isaiah Johnson, who has played in just two career games.

Through two games, Johnson has 89 rushing yards on 26 attempts with one rushing touchdown which came in Eastern’s season-opening win over Indiana State.

Johnson knows that he and the rest of the offense has to get going, and doing it this weekend on their home turf is the perfect time for that.

Johnson said they have put in extra preparation into this week, such as watching film and making sure everyone is healthy.

After two games as the starting running back, he said he is getting more comfortable playing at this level.

“It is a different level of play and speed,” Johnson said. “All the athletes out there, you can’t run circles run around out there like in junior college, everybody is a pretty good athlete out there. You definitely need to bring it all to the table if you want to compete.”

The same goes for this week, as both Dameron and Johnson said the turnovers cannot happen.

Defensively, the Panthers will have a few suspensions to work around.

Senior safety Bradley Dewberry and junior defensive lineman Josh Price both received targeting penalties last week that have them suspended for the first half of this week’s game.

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