For the second time this season Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois met, and for the second time it was Eastern Illinois defeating the Tigers in a dominate 51-10 fashion.
In their first game of the FCS Playoffs, the cold and rust didn’t show at all as Jimmy Garoppolo opened the game 8 of 9 for 147 yards and a touchdown on the team’s first three possessions. Garoppolo finished the game 17 of 26 for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns, giving him 51 touchdowns on the year and just five short of the record of 56.
The Tigers had a simple game plan, don’t make mistakes and it was easier said than done as two-first half unenforced fumbles froze the TSU offense. Quarterback Michael German picked his first loss as starter this season after struggling against the Panthers. With the Tigers ground game putting up 47 yards on 32 carries, the pressure was on German to carry the scoring and couldn’t. German finished 25 of 38 for 242 yards with the majority coming in the second half.
With a kickoff temperature of 21 degrees, the Panthers didn’t seem to be affected at all on their opening drive. Garoppolo would use the deep ball to test the Tiger defense. After a 24 yard pick up to Adam Drake, Garoppolo found deep threat Keiondre Gober for 32 yards to get inside the Tigers five-yard line. The Panthers ended the drive with running back Taylor Duncan scoring the 5-yard touchdown for the game’s first score.
After converting a first down, German fumbled the exchange with center Demetrius Rhaney at midfield to end the Tigers’ first offensive possession. The Panthers looked to take advantage as Garoppolo would go deep to Erik Lora on first down for the 49-yard pick up. Tennessee State settled down and got pressure on Garoppolo to force the Panthers to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Cameron Berra.
After a Tigers’ three and out, EIU would march down the field and score again as Garoppolo fired a laser to Lora for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 16-0.
After a Tennessee State chose to punt to start the second quarter and pin the Panthers inside their own five-yard line, the Panthers put the game away with a 14 play 96 yard drive. The key play happened on 2nd and goal. Garoppolo threw a fade to Lora who was covered by De’Ante Saunders. Saunders looked to have an interception but didn’t hold onto it, giving EIU another chance. Garoppolo would put the game away as he found Jeff LePak from six-yards out to make it 23-0 and give the quarterback his 50th passing touchdown of the season.
Tennessee State got a lucky bounce after a quick three and out as a muffed punt hit a Panthers’ player and running back Adam Davenport jumped on the ball. The Tigers drove the field but settled for a 30-yard field goal by Jamin Godfrey who hooked it right against the wind keeping the 23-0 deficit. After a redemption interception by Saunders at the EIU 21, running back Tim Broughton fell on the following play and fumbled allowing linebacker Adam Gristick to jump on it.
With halftime looming the Tigers once again were on the wrong side of a scoring play as D.J. Bland blocked a Tiger punt that was recovered by Anthony Goodman for a special teams touchdown making it 30-0. The Panthers would drive the field on more time as Garoppolo tossed his 3rd touchdown of the game, finding Drake from four-yards out.
With the game in hand the second half seemed quite uneventful compared to the first half. After another TSU three and out to open the half, the Panthers turned to running back Shepard Little who took used two runs for 43 yards and a 15 yard personal foul by OVC Defensive Player of the Year Anthony Bass to get the Panthers into the end zone once again.
The Tigers avoided the shutout down by 44 points as German started to open up the passing offense going 5-5 for 57 yards but it was Broughton scoring from seven yards out for the TD making it 44-7. Godfrey booted a 42-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to give the Tigers their final points of the game. The Panthers weren’t done with their side of the scoreboard as Little erupted for an 80-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a 51-10 lead.
The victory for Eastern Illinois is their first in the FCS Playoffs since 1989 when the Panthers defeated Idaho in the first round. The Panthers will host No. 6 Towson either Friday or Saturday at O’Brien Field.