Wilkerson, Spack to reunite at the 110th Mid-America Classic


Han Byer

Jonah O’Brien, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, runs through hole found in the University of Tennessee- Chattanooga Mocs’ defensive line during the fourth quarterthe Panther’s first home game of the 2022 season on Saturday evening at O’Brien Field. The Panthers lost 38-20 to the Mocs. O’Brien completed 18-of-28 pass attempts, passing for a total of 183 yards with 2 touchdowns.

Autumn Schulz, Sports Editor

The eighth longest rivalry between non-Ivy League FCS football teams is set for the 2022 season as the Eastern football team will travel to Normal, Illinois Saturday night to face off against Illinois State in the 110th Mid-America Classic. 

Head coach Chris Wilkerson will be facing off against former Panther assistant coach, now head coach of the Redbirds, Brock Spack. Wilkerson credits Spack for making him aware of the Panther football program 33 years ago. 

“It’s super exciting, this rivalry goes way back obviously the 110th time that we’ve played. The coach at Illinois State University, Brock Spack, is a guy that I met 33 years ago,” Wilkerson said. “He was an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois University, and I was attending football camp at the University of Illinois and that’s how I became familiar with Eastern Illinois University and then he was the linebackers coach here for one year. I’ve known Brock a long time, he’s done a phenomenal job with their program, but I know that these games have historically been extremely physical, extremely intense and we’re excited about the opportunity.” 

The Mid-America Classic first started in 1901 and the Redbirds lead the all-time series 58-42-9. The Redbirds have won four straight times with the last meeting being Sept. 2021 where the Redbirds beat the Panthers 31-24.  

Wilkerson said that he understands the players’ perspective and just how fierce the competition can be. 

“As a player you knew every year that when you played in this game, that it was going to be the most physical team and so you just knew that getting ready for it. You knew that there was going to be some intense talking and competition on the field and now as a coach, it’s a little bit different. Certainly, I haven’t talked to coach Spack this week but I’m looking forward to seeing him before the game and the players understand, the ones who have been here and played in this rivalry, they understand how intense it is and the new guys we’ve educated them on how intense it can be.” 

The Panthers are coming off their home opener against No. 9 Chattanooga where they lost 38-27, dropping them to 0-2 on the season.  

Defensively, the Panthers were led by Colin Bohanek who had 10 tackles. Starting quarterback Jonah O’Brien was sacked six times during the game and an offensive lineman was injured. 

Bohanek said that the defense has belief in their offense to not let what happened last game affect them. 

“I mean defense is just sticking to our game plan. You know, we have faith in our offense, the guys are going to step up and we’ve been practicing all week, working hard at that,” Bohanek said. “We’re really focusing on Illinois State’s offense, trying to figure out how to stop them.” 

Wide receiver Justin Thomas led the Panthers against the Mocs with six receptions for 39 yards. His 12 receptions for 122 yards for the season puts him at 23rd in the FCS.  

Thomas said that being new to the rivalry does not dim his excitement. 

“The whole team is excited. This is the first time I’ve played in a trophy rivalry,” Thomas said. “I think it’s going to be a really fun, really cool experience.”  

The Redbirds are 1-1 on the season with their first win of the season coming over Valparaiso last weekend, 28-21.  

Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh leads the Redbirds’ defense with 22 tackles this season, including four sacks.  

Offensively, running back Wenkers Wright leads the team with 117 yards. Starting quarterback Zack Annexstad has passed for 382 yards. 

Bohanek said that the team is looking forward to bringing the trophy back to Charleston. 

“Those guys over there in Normal are a big rivalry every year and it’s always been exciting to go play for a trophy and bring it back to Chucktown.” 

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