Eastern loses close game to Jacksonville State 28-20


File Photo

Eastern quarterback Harry Woodbery fires a pass in the Panthers’ Sept. 21 loss to Tennessee Tech. Eastern lost to Jacksonville State 28-20 on Saturday.

JJ Bullock, Editor-in-Chief

The Eastern football team will have to digest what went wrong in the final moments of a loss for the second week in a row, falling to Jacksonville State 28-20 on Saturday.  

Eastern (0-7, 0-3 OVC) had the ball twice in the final four minutes of the game, trailing Jacksonville State by just eight points, and twice failed to score on two drives that ended with head scratching and disappointing conclusions.  

The first of the two pivotal Eastern drives came with 3:50 to play in the fourth quarter after Eastern took over possession after intercepting Jacksonville State quarterback Zerrick Cooper. Eastern ran the ball for minimal gains on first and second down then threw a short completion to tight end James Sheehan on third down. Eastern had to punt the ball back to Jacksonville State with 1:45 to play in the game.  

Eastern held Jacksonville State on its next drive and got the ball back with 1:20 to play in the game. Then with 14 seconds to play, Eastern quarterback Harry Woodbery was intercepted for a third time, sealing the win for Jacksonville State. The interception left Eastern with its second straight loss that left the team feeling like it was oh-so-close to that elusive first win of the season.  

“It is definitely a lot tougher to lose close games, one score games, opposed to if you’re going to lose by 14, 21 points, but yeah just back to back weeks having this type of result, it sucks but the whole team knows that we are right there,” Sheehan said. “We’re one or two plays away from that being a completely different football game. There is obviously things we can clean up in all aspects but the best thing about this team is no one is really looking at the record. You probably take any other team in the country that is 0-7 and they probably pack it in but I guarantee that this team will be ready to work come Monday.” 

Eastern’s other close loss came last week to Murray State in which the Panthers were literally inches short of tying the game as time expired. This week, the Panthers were once again, one or two drives, one or two plays away from possibly winning its first game of the season. It is a tough pill for Eastern to swallow, but the Panthers’ know how close they have been.  

“I think the hardest part is knowing that we’re this close and knowing that we’re one or two plays away from winning some of these games,” linebacker Joe Caputo said. “You can take that as a good thing because everyone believes and knows that we can win these games. It just comes down to executing on every single play.” 

Sheehan and Caputo were both returning Saturday from injury. Sheehan finished with a team-high seven catches for 65-yards and Caputo finished with two tackles.  

Eastern played arguably its best half of football in the second half of Saturday’s loss, holding a superbly talented Jacksonville State offense to just one score. Dytarious Johnson finished with 12 tackles and the Panther defense held the Gamecocks to just 6-of-15 on third down conversions.  

But, Eastern has talked this season about how it cannot beat its opponent and itself in the same game and again today there were times when the Panthers beat themselves and allowed the Gamecocks to take advantage.  

One instance of this that sticks out came in the second quarter when Woodbery threw an interception in the red zone when the Panthers were trailing 14-7. Jacksonville State got the ball back on the Eastern mistake and capitalized on multiple Eastern defensive mistakes on the subsequent drive scoring a touchdown to go up 21-7 in what was a 14-point swing. 

That is a prime example of beating ourselves,” head coach Adam Cushing said. “Good football teams don’t do that and unfortunately that’s where we’re at where we’re still doing it just enough to not get the result that we need. But that is on us as coaches, that’s truly on us coaching that stuff every single day. Because you don’t go out there and rise above the level of your training, you just don’t. You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training so we have to make sure that every opportunity during the week that all of those things get coached.” 

There was no secret how talented Jacksonville State is and was on Saturday. Quarterback Zerrick Cooper threw three touchdown passes, receiver Josh Pearson caught two, running back Michael Matthews averaged 6.1 yards per rush. But Eastern kept up with them for most of the game and a team that has won the OVC four years in a row suddenly needed some final minutes stops to beat a winless Eastern team.  

The loss was tough for Eastern to swallow, but Cushing said he was proud of how his program played and battled in the loss. 

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]