Panthers blown out in season opener

Eastern+freshman+running+back+Kendi+Young+breaks+into+the+open+field+during+a+72-yard+touchdow+run+in+the+second+quarter+against+Southeast+Missouri+Feb.+28.+Young+had+11+rushes+for+88+yards+and+a+touchdown+in+the+game%2C+which+the+Panthers+lost+47-7.+

Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News

Eastern freshman running back Kendi Young breaks into the open field during a 72-yard touchdow run in the second quarter against Southeast Missouri Feb. 28. Young had 11 rushes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the game, which the Panthers lost 47-7.

Adam Tumino, Editor-in-Chief

The Eastern football team began its long-awaited on Sunday, bringing football back to O’Brien Field after an absence of more that 15 months.

Awaiting the Panthers was Southeast Missouri, one of the top teams in the OVC in 2019. Turnovers and miscues cost the Panthers early on, and the Redhwaks took advantage of short field position to jump out to a big lead in the first half, eventually winning 47-7.

Eastern head coach Adam Cushing, now in his second season with the Panthers, said this was not how the team had hoped to open the season.

“That was not our best game by a longshot. Certainly didn’t do what we needed to do to win. It’s really, really hard, and we say it all the time to the guys, it’s really hard to beat two teams in the same day, he said. “And we beat ourselves out there.”

After a mostly uneventful start to the game, Southeast Missouri blocked a punt deep in Eastern territory, starting a drive at Eastern’s 10-yard line.

The Redhawks punched it into the endzone two plays later to score the first points of the season.

They got another gift from the Panthers in the final minute of the first quarter when Eastern quarterback Harry Woodbery threw an interception at the Panthers’ 10-yard line, once again setting the Redhawks up with a first-and-goal scenario.

This possession also ended with a Southeast Missouri touchdown, coming on the first play of the second quarter.

The scoring was far from over in the second, as the Redhawks would score two more touchdowns and get two field goals and Eastern would get a touchdown of their own, coming on a 72-yard run from freshman running back Kendi Young. The score at halftime was 34-7.

Eastern’s offense was more productive in the second half, recording 181 yards to the Redhawks 141, but they still did not get the ball into the endzone.

“By the time we got a little bit of life going in our offense, we were down by so many points,” Cushing said. “That’s on us as coaches, quite honestly. We’ve got to do a much better job of making it simple so that they can go execute, and we’ve got to protect the football.”

The final touchdown for Southeast Missouri came in the final minute on a pick-six off of freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns, who was seeing his first action at the college level. It was the fourth and final turnover of the game for Eastern.

Cushing also said that, despite the lopsided score, he felt the defense played hard throughout.

Most of Southeast Missouri’s points came on drives in which they had very favorable field position. On their five touchdown drives, their average starting field position was the Eastern 31-yard line. For three of their touchdown drives, the Redhawks took over already in the red zone.

Woodbery, getting the start at quarterback to begin his senior season, was 10-of-26 in the game for 101 yards passing and two interceptions.

Young had 11 carries in the game for 88 yards, including the touchdown run, and DeWayne Cooks led the Panther receivers with 5 catches with 62 yards.

Overall, the Panthers had 295 yards of total offense and Southeast Missouri had 474 yards.

Although this was the first game of the season for the Redhawks, they did play a non-conference game back in October. Eastern did not elect to play any games during the fall, and Cushing said that the unusually long offseason for the Panthers may have played into their slow start.

“Our opponent today had a game in the fall, so they got something a little more recently than we did,” he said.

Although the Panthers have been practicing, Cushing said that there is not a way to fully experience the “game mentality” without actually playing a game.

“There’s a difference,” he said. “In practice, you throw the interception or you throw the ball into the ground, you usually just line up and do it again. But here when you fumble the ball or you throw it to the other team, the other team comes out there on the field and has some momentum.”

Another factor for the Panthers in the game was the high number of freshmen and other inexperienced players who saw the field, often in major roles.

“We’re starting a true freshman at nose tackle, a true freshman at our boundary defensive end. We’ve got true freshmen in the back end, two of them, at the safety position. We’ve got a true freshman playing a bunch of meaningful snaps at corner with Tyris Harvey,” Cushing said. “I was really, really pleased to be honest with you, with the way that those guys came out.”

There were plenty of new faces on offense as well.

“Kendi (Young) played well there,” Cushing said. “We had some other young receivers, that may be older guys, but maybe never played a down of college football, or a bunch of guys that 463 days ago had no role in the offense and now have a huge role in the offense.”

The Panthers’ next game will be on the road against Tennessee-Martin March 7, a game that was originally scheduled to be the season opener Feb. 21 before it was canceled due to weather.

“They say that the most improvement happens from week one to week two,” Cushing said. “I know that’s all cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason, because it really is true.”

 

Adam Tumino can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]