Panthers fall to another ranked opponent

+%28FILE+PHOTO%29+Eastern+sophomore+running+back+Jaelin+Benefield+%283%29+hurdles+through+a+gap+in+the+line+against+Jacksonville+State+April+3+at+OBrien+Field.+Benefield+ran+for+42+yards+and+had+a+9-yard+reception+in+the+game%2C+which+the+Panthers+lost+44-23.+

Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News

(FILE PHOTO) Eastern sophomore running back Jaelin Benefield (3) hurdles through a gap in the line against Jacksonville State April 3 at O’Brien Field. Benefield ran for 42 yards and had a 9-yard reception in the game, which the Panthers lost 44-23.

Adam Tumino, Editor-in-Chief

For the second-straight weekend, the Eastern football lost to a nationally ranked opponent.

Last week it was No. 19 Murray State, and this week No. 12 Jacksonville State came to O’Brien Field and handed the Panthers a 44-23 loss.

Eastern fell to 1-5 on the season with the loss. The Gamecocks improved to 5-1 and set up a final game against 5-1 Murray State next week that will determine the OVC champion.

Eastern head coach Adam Cushing said that the team was in position to try and win the game, but that the Gamecocks pulled away down the stretch.

“Obviously not the outcome we were looking for,” he said. “It was a heck of a football game, really a back-and-forth battle, and got ourselves where we wanted it to be which was down to a one-score game there in the second half. Whether it’s one score in our favor or their favor, you always feel like you’ve got an opportunity to go win that football game. Ultimately they made more plays than we made.”

It was the second-straight game in which the Panthers were in solid position in the third quarter to pull off an upset win.

Against Murray State, Eastern was ahead 27-13 halfway through the third before the Racers scored 28 unanswered points to win the game.

Against Jacksonville State, the score was within eight points at 31-23 entering the fourth quarter before two touchdowns from the Gamecocks put it away.

“That starts with us as coaches,” Cushing said. “We got to get our guys in position to make the plays better, and then our guys have to come through with it. So it’s a collective team effort to improve. There are no moral victories. That’s a heck of a football team we just played, don’t get me wrong. They’re really, really, really good. Their coach does a phenomenal job coaching them up and they play hard. But the plan wasn’t to go out there and get a moral victory. The plan was the go out there and win, and we didn’t accomplish it.”

There were some standout performances for the Panthers in the game, starting with senior quarterback Harry Woodbery, who got his first start since the second game of the season.

Freshman Otto Kuhns had started the last three games.

He was 14-of-30 passing for 22 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions. He ran for an 8-yard touchdown as well.

Cushing said that Woodbery was able to stay ready when he was not the starter, and that made it easier for him to step back into the starting role and play well.

“You never know when your opportunity is going to come back to you or going to come to you, and Harry just kept on preparing, kept on getting himself ready,” Cushing said. “He had a couple plays he’d love back, I know that, but to go out there and produce the way he did against a really, really stingy defense to be honest, he produced really darn well. What he did, which was awesome, was just get the ball to guys to make plays. He didn’t try to do anything magical. He didn’t try to win the game solo. He got it to the guys who were making big plays.”

On the receiving end of some of these big plays were wide receivers DeWayne Cooks and Robbie Lofton.

Cooks had a game-high 103 receiving yards on 4 catches, including a 60-yard gain that mostly came on yards after the catch.

Lofton had just one catch but it went for 67 yards, which was the longest play for either team in the game.

Superback Jay Vallie had 4 catches on the day and a touchdown.

Freshman running back Jordan Smith carried the ball 14 times for 51 yards and a touchdown and sophomore Jaelin Benefield had 13 carries for 42 yards.

Sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson continued his strong season with 11 total tackles. He still leads the OVC in tackles this spring with 66, 12 more than the next-closest player.

“There’s just not enough superlatives for Jason Johnson’s work ethic,” Cushing said. “His results from game day come from what he does all week long, because he practices exactly the way that you see him play in the game. Just as physical, just as excited, just as fast. He prepares his tail off. He will tell you what play id getting ready to be run, he’ll be studying as much video as anybody we’ve got, and then he’s super talented. So you add an incredible work ethic on top of some really, really good talent, then you’re going to end up with a good football player.”

The Panthers have one game left this season against Austin Peay at home.

It will close out a tough stretch against the Panthers, having faced ranked Murray State and Jacksonville State, teams that also happen to have lost to Austin Peay in each of the last two weeks.

“We’ve got another really good football team coming in here next weekend, but it’s going to be all about our seniors playing their last game at O’Brien,” Cushing said. “We’re just so excited to have that one last opportunity.”

 

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