The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

A tale of two 4s

Redshirt sophomore Blake Ruffin (left) and graduate wide receiver Justin Thomas (right) pose at practice on Sunday afternoon at O’Brien Field.

Graduate wide receiver Justin Thomas and redshirt sophomore safety Blake Ruffin wear the jersey number four on the field.

On both sides of the ball, Thomas and Ruffin made crucial plays with less than one minute left in the fourth quarter to help the Panthers win the Mid-American Classic on Saturday afternoon.

With less than six seconds on the clock, redshirt junior quarterback Pierce Holley threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Thomas. Thomas made sure both of his feet were in bounds while he caught the ball.

This touchdown tied the game 13-13.

Redshirt sophomore kicker Julian Patino kicked the extra point to put the Panthers ahead by one point.

“I was happy,” Ruffin said when he saw Thomas score for the second time in the game. “It was a long game, not too many points scored, so when we got that second [touchdown] late, it was a great feeling. The defense can just go out and relax our defense to win the game.”

On the third play of the Redbirds’ drive, Ruffin read the offense and intercepted Redbirds’ quarterback Zack Annexstad to seal the win for the Panthers.

“It’s over,” Thomas thought when he saw Ruffin intercept the pass. “Just like Blake said, it was a long game; rollercoaster of a game and a lot of ups and downs, so just to see that the dagger in the moment, I was pumped.”

The Panthers beat the Illinois State Redbirds 14-13 in the 111th Mid-American Classic, and this was also the Panthers’ season home opener.

Both Thomas and Ruffin explained the significance of them sharing a jersey number.

“After my freshman year, I got a call from the coaches asking if I wanted a new number,” Ruffin said. “I was 38 at first, so I was definitely ready to get out of that, so I’m happy with the number four.”

“When I transferred here, they just gave it to me, and it kinda works out,” Thomas said. “[Blake and I] got some crazy stories between that.”

Even though they share a number, both Thomas and Ruffin have been through multiple injuries that sidelined them throughout their respective times at Eastern, and the two bonded over their jersey number and how their injuries have gotten them to where they are now.

“We battled through injuries together, and we had a lot of time in the training room together,” Thomas said.

Ruffin tore his ACL in 2022, and Thomas tore his hip labrum in 2022. Both players were out for the entirety of the season.

“This was the first time we got the win together,” Thomas said.

Thomas missed the first two games of the 2023 season because he had a grade three AC joint sprain.

Saturday’s game was the first time Thomas and Ruffin played together.

Zaria Flippin can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].

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Zaria Flippin
Zaria Flippin, Sports Editor
Zaria Flippin is a junior sports media relations major. This is her first year at The News.

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