Heading into Eastern Illinois’ second game of the season against Southern Illinois-Carbondale, Panthers’ coach Kim Dameron made it a point to give the ball to the Panthers’ running backs.
Now, entering the 103rd Mid-America Classic against Illinois State at noon Saturday in Normal, Dameron still wants to emphasize the running game.
Through its first two games, Eastern has totaled 117 yards from its three running backs. To improve on those numbers, Dameron said it has start with the blocking.
“We have to become more physical up front and outside with the way the receivers block,” Dameron said.
Red-shirt junior Shepard Little rushed for 92 yards on 16 carries against the Salukis, but he received 11 of his carries in the first half. Red-shirt senior Taylor Duncan, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last year, only has seven rushes this season.
“We got the ball to Shep a little bit more in some straight design runs that were not read-oriented, but we have to integrate Taylor Duncan a little bit more,” Dameron said.
Illinois State coach Brock Spack said his defense would have its hands full going up against the Panthers’ offense and the leading reason was because of Eastern offensive linemen.
“Their offensive line is one of the most bonafide groups I’ve seen at Eastern in a while – they’re very athletic and I’ve been impressed with them,” Spack said.
Although the Panthers’ running game is not where Dameron wants it to be at this point of the season, he said Eastern’s duo at quarterback has done more than enough to impress.
Red-shirt senior Andrew Manley and junior Jalen Whitlow have combined for 635 passing yards and 131 rushing yards and five total touchdowns.
“If you look at our quarterback position is has been really productive,” Dameron said.
Spack has also been impressed with Manley and Whitlow and said he understands why Eastern is playing both during games.
“I’m sure they think that one guy does one thing better than the other and they bring different things to the table, so if you’re going to play two quarterbacks that’s why you do it,” Spack said. “Both guys do things that are excellent.”
Despite the high yardage total from Manley and Whitlow, Dameron said both quarterbacks have to be more balanced.
“I look at it only as a negative where we’re getting a little one-dimensional with each of them,” he said.
Having both quarterbacks use all of their attributes also goes along with Dameron’s goal of having a balanced offense, which is why the running game for the Panthers needs to get better.
“We have to keep coming as far as our run game is concerned,” Dameron said. “We want to be a balanced offense and that is what we’re going to continue to strive to do.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Eastern is trying to regroup after allowing 24-unanswered points to Southern last Saturday.
The biggest flaw Dameron saw was the tackling and also losing one-on-one battles on the line.
The Salukis rushed for 146 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns all coming from Malcolm Agnew.
“Our run fits, as far as stopping the run defensively, we got a little sloppy in those areas and we had some guys that didn’t get off a block and all of a sudden here comes the back,” Dameron said. “With a good back all they’re looking for is a tie, so those are some things we targeted and worked on.”
The Panthers’ defense is going up against Indiana transfer quarterback Tre Roberson. The junior has the ability to run as well out of the quarterback position, as he debuted the season with two rushing touchdowns while passing for two touchdowns and 204 yards against Mississippi Valley State.
Despite not being able to finish either game strong, the Eastern defense has been able to cause trouble for the opposing offenses, which Spack recognized.
“They’re really disruptive defensively and they play a three-down (scheme) which causes some issues there,” Spack said. “I think like a lot of first-year staffs they’re still trying to figure out what they can and can’t do. I’m sure they’ll whittle things down this week and stick with things they do very well.”
At 0-2, Eastern is in danger of starting a season winless in its first three games since 2010, when the Panthers began 0-8 before ending the year 2-9. Dameron knows the rivalry game will not be easy.
“They’ve been together for a while and so it’s a challenge going up there trying to get our first win,” he said.
The noon kickoff will be televised on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and online on ESPN3.
Players to watch
If there was one guy that Dameron could describe as twitchy, the Eastern football coach found him looking at Illinois State film.
Defensive end David Perkins, who played his freshman season at Ohio State, transferred to Illinois State last year and was promptly named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team.
When Dameron popped in the tape to study the Redbirds, Perkins stood out.
“He can run and he’s twitchy, I mean he’s twitchy,” Dameron said. “That’s what twitchy looks like.”
Perkins tied for the team lead in sacks last season with four, while also nabbing a team-high three forced fumbles.
Another veteran Dameron was impressed with on Illinois State’s defense was safety Dontae McCoy.
The senior strong safety was an All-MVFC Honorable Mention selection, following his junior season when he had a career-high 63 tackles that included 43 solo stops.
“They have a very experienced safety that has been playing for them for several years and is a heck of a player,” Dameron said.
McCoy has played in all 35 games during his first three years at Illinois State, starting primarily as a special teams player before starting at safety all 11 games last year.
Switching to the other side of the ball, the Redbirds began the year with a new quarterback, who transferred from Indiana – Tre Roberson.
The junior has already showed off his dual-set ability, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for two touchdowns in Illinois State’s 62-0 win over Mississippi Valley State last Saturday.
Roberson played two full years in the Big Ten Conference, as he was granted a medical red-shirt in 2012, when he broke his leg. Roberson started four games in 2013 with Indiana, while playing in all 12 games. He passed for 1,128 yards, throwing 15 touchdowns and added 423 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.
With Jalen Whitlow on Eastern’s roster, Dameron said the Panthers know what to look for when defending Roberson on Saturday.
“You just have to be very disciplined, not only in the run game but also in your pass rush lanes and in your ability to corral him,” Dameron said. “You can’t lose contain on him. Those guys present problems and you just have to have a plan for it.”
The Panthers faced a running quarterback in the season opener at Minnesota, where Mitch Leidner scored two rushing touchdowns, but was only able to net 15 yards on seven carries.