Time works against Panthers in season opener


Rob Le Cates

Number 6, Jonah O’Brien a redshirt sophomore quarterback rushed during the Panthers’ season opener at Northern Illinois University against the Huskies at Huskie Stadium Thursday night. The Panthers lost 34-27 against the Huskies.

Autumn Schulz, Sports Editor

The season opener against Northern Illinois for the Eastern football team came down to the last 58 seconds of the game but time ran out at Huskie Stadium Thursday evening as the Panthers dropped the game 34-27.

Coach Chris Wilkerson said that he is proud of what his team accomplished but that there is no such thing as a moral victory

“I’m really proud of the guys’ effort. I’m proud of their enthusiasm. I’m proud of their passion to play the way that we want to play football but we’re not happy, we’re not satisfied with the end results,” Wilkerson said. “There’s no such thing as a moral victory.”

The Mid-American Conference Champions wasted no time marching into Panther territory to open the first quarter. Running back Harrison Waylee ran the ball for 51-yards before he was knocked out of bounds at the 2-yard line. The Huskies capitalized on the positioning, putting them on top 7-0.

The Panthers answered back at the end of the quarter with a successful 34-yard field goal attempt by Stone Galloway, cutting the lead to 7-3.

The Huskies’ momentum continued into the second quarter as running back Mason Blakemore had a 19-yard rushing touchdown up the middle, pushing the lead to 14-3. The first drive of the second half for the Panthers resulted in an interception. Taking full advantage, the Huskies positioned themselves for a 35-yard touchdown.

The Panthers were able to answer back once again with a successful field goal attempt by Galloway. Going into halftime, the Panthers were trailing 21-6. Wilkerson said that the adjustments made at halftime were all about keeping calm.

“I think the biggest thing you know, there’s no panic. That’s something we talked about all during preseason and something we’ve talked about to the kids all night,” Wilkerson said. “Let’s continue to be ourselves. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing or where we’re playing or how we’re playing. Our whole job is just to go out there and try to make adjustments, which we did, and take what they give us. We had to be patient, we stayed within the game plan, and we still ran the football, didn’t just panic and start throwing every single down.”

Those adjustments were just what the Panthers needed as they would go on to score 21 second half points. It started midway through the third quarter after starting quarterback Jonah O’Brien connected with running back Jaelin Benefield on a 24-yard touchdown pass.

Benefield, who had 10 carries for 71 yards, said that the Panthers’ execution on turnovers helped them in the second half.

“We just kind of knew where we messed up and we knew those turnovers in the first half made a big difference and we knew we were beating ourselves,” Benefield said. “We don’t make turnovers and we execute on forced turnovers and our game is totally different than the first half.”

O’Brien passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns, which is the most passing yards by the Panthers in an opening game since 2016. Wilkerson said that O’Brien truly earned the starting quarterback position.

“So, all three quarterbacks, two of them during spring practice and the third one obviously arriving in the summer, had done a phenomenal job and maybe shown flashes but Jonah had earned that right to be our starting quarterback today. At first glance, I think there were some things that he did really, really well and there’s certainly some things that maybe he wishes he had done a little bit better.”

With about 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Panthers went on an 85-yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 31-20. The Huskies answered back with a field goal attempt, but the Panthers quickly used getting the ball back their advantage and were able to cut the lead to 34-27 with about two minutes left to play.

The Panthers failed an onside kick but saw another gleam of hope to tie the game as a 43-yard field goal attempt by the Huskies went way right, giving the Panthers the ball back with 58 seconds left.

The Panthers made their way into NIU territory but time on the clock would ultimately expire, sealing the 34-27 victory for the Huskies.

Benefield said that the team is going to compete until the end.

“We are going to fight until the end. I’m really happy to see the fight that we had throughout all the adversity. I know we are not stopping until the clock has zeros on it,” Benefield said.

The Panthers’ home opener will be Sept. 10 against Chattanooga starting at 6 p.m. Safety Jordan Vincent said that the Mocs should be ready because the Panthers can battle anyone.

“I think that shows that we can play with anybody in the nation. No matter who we line up against. We’re willing to compete with whoever,” Vincent said.

Autumn Schulz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]