We’re getting to the top of the league now…EIU’s looking to get back to the FCS Playoffs, and maybe avenge their only loss in conference play from a year ago. Can the Panthers get back to the top of the OVC mountain? Three reasons they can:
1. The offense, a weak link a year ago, is a lot more experienced
At it’s base level, these two facts shouldn’t coexist: Eastern Illinois finished seventh in scoring offense in the league a year ago, yet went 7-1 in conference play. The Panthers averaged just 339 yards per game on offense, more than 150 yards below league-leaders Jacksonville State, and even 100 yards fewer than teams like Murray State and UT Martin. But, EIU made the most out of their 23.6 points per game.
That number will likely rise in 2016.
[Last season] EIU made the most out of their 23.6 points per game.
The Panthers return nine offensive starters from a year ago, including a pair of preseason all-OVC selections in running back Devin Church (pictured above, and more on him in a moment) and offensive lineman Evan Kanz. Kanz is one of three starting offensive lineman back in the lineup this season, which is huge for a team that might be reliant on the running game. Which brings me to…
2. Running teams can win in the OVC
We hear it all the time: the quarterback is the most important position on the field. That’s a little less true at the FCS level. Having a great QB does make things easier — but a great rushing attack is a potent weapon.
Look at Jacksonville State, for instance. The Gamecocks averaged just over 300 yards on the ground per game a season ago, which accounted for nearly 60% of their offensive output. That rushing came from several positions, including Eli Jenkins at quarterback, but it goes to show that a potent pass offense (JSU was fifth in the league in passing yards per game) isn’t a requirement to be a great team.
That’s good news for EIU, who enters the season with two unknown quantities at quarterback. Only junior Austin Green has thrown game passes, and just 15 at that. He’ll likely compete with sophomore Jared Pilson for the starting role.
Church is likely due for an explosion: last year, he ran for just 743 yards, but his selection on the all-OVC team shows that coaches and SID’s are high on the senior. He’s also a great option for passes out of the backfield, giving which ever QB wins the battle a strong option without having to test opposing secondaries.
3. Defense likely to continue to be strength of the team
EIU only returns four starters from the league’s second-best defense a year ago, but two of those guys are preseason all-OVC selections in defensive back Bradley Dewberry and Seth McDonald. McDonald’s 109 tackles last season are the most among returning players, and the speedy LB was just one of five players to break into triple digits. Dewberry is a great threat in the secondary, just one of two returning players with four or more picks a season ago.
When the Panthers hired head coach Kim Dameron two years ago, I was a bit confused, given the great offensive success previous coach Dino Babers had, why the school would look to a defensive guy. Well — last season showed how good a dominant defense can be (even if it’s not as exciting as the 50-point explosions from the last guy) and his defenses have been consistently great. The defense jumped up to a top-3 defense in Dameron’s first year, so there’s no reason to expect it to fall off this season, even given it’s relative inexperience.