The Eastern Illinois football team botched a snap, fumbled once, was intercepted and had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown, as Minnesota defeated the Panthers 42-20 Thursday night in TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., to start the season.
The three Eastern turnovers and blocked punt not only cost the Panthers scoring opportunities, they also gave the Golden Gophers good field position that led to touchdowns.
Eastern head coach Kim Dameron decided to start junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
The Kentucky transfer could not handle a Nick Borre shotgun snap late in the first quarter.
Whitlow collapsed to the ground, trying to get on top of the ball, but Minnesota’s defense swarmed the Eastern quarterback with the Gophers coming away with the recovery.
Starting their drive inside the Eastern five-yard line, red-shirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner ran in for a two-yard touchdown on third and goal with 1:53 left in the first quarter to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead.
Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill saw his team come up with yet another big play to start the second half.
In the third quarter, trailing 14-0, Eastern was backed up near its end zone on fourth down, when Minnesota’s Eric Murray blocked the Panthers’ punt. Logan Hutton snatched the ball from the air and walked in for a touchdown.
“It was crucial,” Dameron said of the blocked punt. “We’re in a 14-point game and our defense had been playing pretty good and we go and do that. It’s just something that good teams can’t do.”
Eastern went down 21-0 with that special teams mistake less than two minutes into the third quarter.
“Every time we turned around it was a penalty, or a bad throw, or we snapped the ball at the wrong time,” Dameron said.
The miscues continued, as South Florida transfer Stephen Bravo-Brown fumbled later in the third quarter. Bravo-Brown hauled in a pass from Whitlow and ran inside Minnesota’s 10-yard line, but was taken to the ground hard enough that forced him to fumble.
The Gophers’ recovered at the five-yard line with 7:22 left in the quarter.
Meanwhile, the Gophers’ offense picked up after getting off to a slow start. They took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter and turned it into a 42-7 rout before two late Eastern touchdowns in garbage time.
Following Whitlow’s interception late in the third quarter, with the Panthers in Minnesota’s territory, he did not appear for the rest of the game. Red-shirt senior Andrew Manley played all of the fourth quarter for Eastern.
Dameron said both quarterbacks would continue to receive playing time as the season continues.
“We know that both of them are going to play going forward period,” he said. “They’re both good football players and my opinion on them has not changed after tonight.”
The two-quarterback system was unveiled with Whitlow playing the first three series in the first quarter. Manley appeared in two series in the first half, starting 3-of-8 for 27 yards.
Manley threw two touchdown passes, one apiece to running back Jimmy Lera and a Hail Mary to end the game to Adam Drake.
Whitlow showed off his running ability, rushing for 77 yards on 19 attempts, both team highs. After ending the first half 7-for-11 for 54 yards, Whitlow ended the game 14-of-23 for 110 yards.
Manley scored Eastern’s first touchdown on a two-yard run. He completed 18-of-34 passes for 200 yards.