As the season nears, it’s time to finish the season preview countdown. At No. 7, the Eastern Illinois Panthers
The line you keep hearing about this team is that it’s the beginning of a new era. And while they do have a new head coach, it’s far too soon to see it this truly is the start of an era.
Because this program truly left an era. This isn’t just another coaching change, it’s the first new coach at Eastern Illinois since 1987.
I was 3 when Bob Spoo took over that program.
The man following the legend, Dino Babers, was in his first year as an assistant. At Eastern Illinois, under then first year coach Spoo.
Only seems fitting that 24 years later, Babers first head coaching job is taking over after the man who gave him his first assistant job.
And that’s what really makes Babers such a great hire for this program. Sure, he is considered a great offensive mind who has spent the last three years at Baylor. But this isn’t just another coach taking over another program.
This is a man taking over a program that gave him his start in the business.
Too bad he’s taking it over at such a low point.
If anyone in the OVC that appears poised to break out, quarterback Jimmy Garopollo is at the top of my list. Garopollo finished second in yards as a sophomore behind Racers quarterback Casey Brockman, and despite being on the worst offense by yards, and one of the worst scoring offenses, managed to throw for 20 touchdowns, 3rd in the league.
Of course, he also threw for 14 interceptions, “helping” his team finish last in the conference in turnover margin. So what is doing to create more of the positive, and less of the negative?
“Getting into the film room with coaches,” Garopollo said at OVC Media Day. “Trying to make my decision making become better and more productive.”
Having good receivers to throw to is a huge help, and both of Garopollo’s top targets are back in Kenny Whitaker and Chris Wright. Whitaker caught 42 balls in 9 games last season, 5th in the OVC and catches per game, and Whitaker was the target for 11 of Garopollo’s 20 touchdowns, the most in the league.
On top of those two, also returning is wideout Erik Lora who missed all of last season with an injury but caught 50 passes for 478 yards as a sophomore in 2010.
And for icing on top of the cake, The tight end tandem of Von Wise (32 catches, 348 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Sam Hendricks (17 catches, 194 yards, 3 touchdowns) also return on offense for the Panthers.
One contributing factor to Garopollo’s interception problem: the running game.
There was none.
Technically, that’s not true, as 941 yards were gained on the ground, the fewest in the OVC. As was their per rush average of…2.7 yards. Not just last in the league, last in the league by a substantial margin.
Not shockingly, the team does not return a top-10 rusher this season. Because they didn’t have a top-10 rusher last season.
To be fair, their top running back, Jake Walker, was injured in last year’s season opener, and did post back-to-back 100 yard games against Austin Peay and Tennessee State once he returned. So there is, as there is with Garopollo, good reason to believe that Walker will be improved this season.
The rest of their running back corps is, shall we say, untested. Their No. 2 back last season, A.J. Woodson has been moved to defensive back, and their No. 3 back last season, Jimmy Lira, is now a wide receiver.
If Walker can stay healthy, and EIU can improve on their dismal rushing average from a season ago (which it’s hard to do much worse than) that could in turn help the passing game as well.
In short, I don’t see the Panthers finishing at the bottom of the conference in total offense this season.
How high they finish above that is the key question.
Their rushing attack wasn’t that good last year.
Their defense against the run…wasn’t much better, finishing 8th in the league, allowing 5.2 yards per run.
It also doubled to help their pass defense look a little bit better than it was. Sure, the Panthers finished allowing the fewest yards against the pass, and fewest passing touchdowns in the conference. Opponents also threw against it fewer times than any other team in the league.
Why risk passing when you can hand it off to your back and, on average, get half the yardage you need for a first down?
Clearly this is a problem, and tackle Roosevelt Holliday knows that it is. The solution? “We didn’t watch as much film as we should,” Holliday says.
The bright spot on the Panthers defense is all-OVC selection Artavious Dowdell, a defensive lineman who had 45 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 5 sacks a season ago. It will be up to he and Holliday to anchor the team’s run defense.
Despite my comment above, the Panthers secondary was solid last season, but I’d stop short of calling it spectacular. One major problem: only 4 interceptions, another contributor to the team’s -14 turnover margin. Keeping teams to short gains, which the Panthers were usually able to do, is honorable, but don’t provide much of a spark.
Of all my interviews at OVC Media Day, this team’s was my favorite. (Yes, I’m allowed to pick favorites) And partially because of that, part of me really wanted to move this team up from the bottom third of the conference.
And I do think the potential is there for the Panthers to have a breakout season. (And I’ll kick myself for not moving them up if they do)
But there are quite a few question marks, including the running game, which seems like it could be especially vulnerable to injury. And we’ve yet to see how the run defense will stand up, and if the pass defense can withstand an increased number of throws if it does.
After all, the story out of OVC Media Day was that this is the “Year of the Quarterback”
In many ways, Babers faces an uphill battle in his first ever season as a head coach.
But in others, Babers is lucky. The job security is reasonable, after all, this school kept it’s last coach for 24 years.
And I bet a part of him is glad to be at this program, given his history.
There aren’t many head coaches that can say that about when they enter the ranks of head coach for the first time.