Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News
The Eastern football team may have come up short Saturday night against Illinois State in the 109th Mid-America Classic, but head coach Adam Cushing said he felt that the team showed what they are capable of.
“We had to make a play and we made some plays, but we were just a couple plays away. That’s what it ended up being,” he said. “We were a couple fourth downs on offense away, we’re converting the surprise onside away, we’re getting the third down stop, but we just showed what we’re capable of when we play with that type of passion and excitement and love for each other.”
With a 31-24 win over the Panthers, the Redbirds have now won the Mid-America Classic four straight times.
Redbird quarterback Jackson Waring was 5-of-7 passing for 33 yards. Illinois State had just 54 passing yards on Saturday night.
The Redbirds built a 10-0 lead through the first half until Eastern quarterback Otto Kuhns connected with Robbie Lofton on a 5-yard pass with 20 seconds left in the second quarter, cutting the lead to 10-7.
Cushing said that although the Redbirds controlled the ball in the first half, the Eastern offense still made plays happen.
“It’s something you are really conscious of,” he said. “You see the first quarter go by like that. They occupied the ball pretty darn well. We bowed up; the offense started to put some stuff together, and all of a sudden here comes that team football. Even after we don’t come up with the fourth down in the redzone we come right back down and score, that was huge.”
The second half allowed Eastern to drive deep into Illinois State territory with a chance to tie or take the lead.
However, with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Eastern quarterback Otto Kuhns threw an interception that was returned for a 95-yard touchdown to put the Redbirds up 17-7. The intended receiver fell down on the play, leaving the defender with an easy catch.
Cushing said that despite the interception, Kuhns kept a calm quarterback demeanor that allowed him to take what was coming at him.
“He grew up a bunch this week,” he said. “He continues to do that, throughout all of fall camp. This was a huge response from him this week. A great job of showing up and being excited to be here and really, he had that calm quarterback demeanor out there. That’s why whatever was thrown at him, he did a nice job with it and kind of making a play. He plays a pretty darn good game, he protected the ball, he made good decisions with it, he got it out of his hands. It was fun to watch.”
Kuhns was 16-of-32 passing for 204 yards on the game with 1 interception and 1 touchdown.
The Panthers had two blocked kicks, one a punt and the other a field goal, in the game against the Redbirds with the first one coming late in the third quarter after the pick six.
Eastern defensive back Charles Shelton IV blocked a punt by JT Bohlken which allowed freshman wide receiver DeAirious Smith to recover the ball and return it seven yards for a touchdown, tying the game 17-17.
The blocked field goal came with just 34 seconds remaining in the game after defensive linemen Justin Growel blocked and recovered the loose ball himself, returning it ten yards to give Eastern the ball one last time. The offense was unable to capitalize, however.
Kicker Stone Galloway made a field goal and three extra points and punter Logen Neidhardt, who was named OVC Special Teams Player of the Week last week, had a pair of 52-yard punts.
Cushing said that the special teams did an excellent job utilizing the opportunities that were given by the Redbirds.
“They made field goals huge, punted the ball extremely well, and Logen continues to do an unbelievable job for us,” he said. “Obviously, the blocked punt for a touchdown makes a big deal and then we block a field goal at the end of the game to keep our last hope alive. It was incredible stuff and obviously they did not give us a bunch of opportunities but when they did, we took advantage of it.”
Defensively, linebacker Jason Johnson led Eastern with 8 tackles.
Wide receiver Robbie Lofton led Eastern offensively with 3 catches and 61 yards.
Lofton said that his chemistry with Kuhns during the game stems from work in practice.
“Me and Otto have built that connection throughout practice, just consistently repping the same plays, making sure we’re in the right spots at all times,” he said.” But honestly what impresses me about Otto the most is his ability to lead an offense at such a young age. That’s a huge task to ask anybody at such a young age.”
Eastern will open up OVC play next Saturday at Tennessee Tech.
Lofton said that the team has a lot of confidence going into conference play and that Tennessee Tech should be ready for the Panthers.
“This game tonight gave us a lot of confidence,” he said. I love that the team was able to see what we can do when we put all our chips on the table and go out there and play for each other. Unfortunately, Tennessee Tech will have to feel the wrath of this hard loss tonight.”
Autumn Schulz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]