Know your foe: Eastern Illinois

Published 3:41 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Eastern Illinois’ football program is trending back upward.

Much like McNeese State, the Panthers, longtime a staple of power on the FCS level, are rebuilding. 

They haven’t had a winning season since 2017 and had won just five games over the previous four seasons. That included a 29-15 loss to McNeese inside Cowboy Stadium last season.

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However, things seem to be changing in Charleston, Ill., under second-year head coach Chris Wilkerson. Already the Panthers have won as many games as last season (2) as they get set to host winless McNeese Saturday at O’Brien Field.

“Eastern Illinois feels great about themselves,” said McNeese head coach Gary Goff, who is also in his second season. “They won the first game of their season and they won last week against Illinois State, a good program.

“Right now they believe no question about it. Eastern Illinois believes. We are not there yet. We have to get there.”

The Panthers rallied late to beat their rivals from the Missouri Valley 14-13 on a touchdown pass from Georgetown transfer quarterback Pierce Holley to Justin Thomas in the closing seconds to win their home opener. ISU was ranked 25th in FCS at the time and the win led to EIU receiving votes this week in the polls.

Wilkerson didn’t want to say just how big the victory over the ranked Redbirds was, but he hopes it can become something to build around.

“It was a great win,” Wilkerson said. “It remains to be seen if it is one of those signature wins that changes the program. At some point you need one of those signature wins to change your culture.”

It did give EIU a 2-0 record against both MVC and FCS competition.

“A ton of players stepped up,” Wilkerson said. “We have a lot of things to correct still.”

The Panthers have been able to get turnovers this season, intercepting six passes in three games and returning two of them for touchdowns. They also allowed eight sacks last week so it has not all been smooth sailing.

When asked about the biggest difference in the Panthers this season Goff said it was Holley.

“He is a pocket passer and has a good arm,” said Goff. “They got their trigger man. He has played some good football.”

Holley, a three-year starter at Georgetown, is 76-of-111 for 767 yards and four touchdowns this season. He has been picked off four times, however. 

Eastern has a long history of good quarterbacks dating back to former Saints head coach Sean Payton in the 1980s. Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo also played quarterback for the Panthers.

The program also won a national championship back in 1978 on the Division II level and lost the title game in 1980. 

But the past few years the Panthers have struggled to win games, leading to Wilkerson being brought it last fall. He played football at Eastern and knows the history of the program.

“There is not a big difference between the two programs when you look at them on film,” said Goff. “The biggest difference is they have won some close ballgames and they believe.”

Wilkerson admitted last year his team was handled by McNeese.

“We went down there and frankly got bullied around,” Wilkerson said. “We are 0-3 against McNeese and I have been a part of all three of those.”

Now he hopes to be the coach to get the Panthers’ first win over McNeese.