By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
CHARLESTON, Ill. – The moment the ball is kicked off on Saturday, it's a brand new start.
Sure, the 3-1 start the Tennessee Tech football team has right now is fantastic, but as the Ohio Valley Conference schedule starts in earnest this weekend, that is what will determine the team's postseason fate.
The last time the Golden Eagles started 3-1 was 2011 – the year the Golden Eagles clinched a share of the OVC title with Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky (beating them both on their home fields) and earning the league's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
But, make no mistake, every week is going to be a fight.
Case in point, Tech's first league opponent Eastern Illinois. The Panthers are coming into the contest with an 0-4 record, falling to Chattanooga (24-10), Indiana (52-0), Illinois State (21-3) and Indiana State (16-6) in consecutive weeks.
Still, Charleston, Ill., has not been kind to the Golden Eagles, who have only managed three wins all-time at O'Brien Field – 1976, 1999 and 2011. The names Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo still carry weight there, the latter being inducted into the Panthers' Sports Hall of Fame this weekend along with record-setting wide receiver Erik Lora.
And the Panthers have also won the last seven meetings against the Golden Eagles, the longest streak in the series, which stands 19-6 in favor of the gentlemen in blue, silver and white.
However, this is an Eastern Illinois team that is still trying to find its footing. First-year head coach Adam Cushing, formerly an assistant at Northwestern, brought more than 40 new players into Charleston. Tech head coach Dewayne Alexander can relate, running into nearly a similar situation last season as he took over the helm of the Golden Eagle program.
The Panthers have struggled to find the end zone, scoring two total touchdowns on the season – a rushing score for Harry Woodbery and a Johnathan Brantley touchdown strike to Nick Stricker the only appearances in the end zone thus far. Josh Delgado leads EIU in scoring, hitting two of his three field goals and one of his two PATs.
EIU has been uncharacteristically outscored 113-19 in four games this season, with 52 of those 113 coming against FBS Indiana – which does bode as a positive for the Panthers: they're not allowing a lot of points to FCS competition, just around 20 points per game, so the defense has been able to slow offenses down to a degree.
The Panthers have forced three interceptions and two fumbles with one lost. Dytarious Johnson (22), Joe Caputo (22) and Antonio Crosby (21) have been workhorses on the defense, leading EIU in tackles.
Eastern's offense has been handcuffed in the first four contests. The Panthers are averaging 105.2 yards on the ground and 115.5 through the air, compared to Tech's 169 rushing and 281.8 passing. And as the defensive unit is allowing around 20 points a game against FCS competition, EIU, overall, is averaging 4.8 points. Tech, currently, is averaging 36.2.
But statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt as the game is won on the field and not on paper. While the tale of the tape may squarely be in the Golden Eagles' favor, history certainly hasn't and that makes this weekend's game just as dangerous for Tech as if the situation was reversed.
In last year's game, for example, Woodbery threw for 339 yards and five touchdowns, including nine catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns for Alexander Hollins. They also had an explosive running attack from Isaiah Johnson, who ran for 161 yards and a score on 20 carries.
That game was also the coming-out party for Tech quarterback Bailey Fisher, who threw for 383 yards and four touchdowns, showing early glimpses of the abilities he has shown this season.
EIU, however, won that game at Tucker Stadium 52-38.
Fisher, so far this season, has nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards on the year through four games, while Brantley has thrown for 263 and Woodbery 199. Jaelin Benefield has rushed for 107 yards and caught 14 passes for 79 yards through four games to lead the Panthers in rushing and receiving.
His Tech counterpart on the ground, Andrew Goldsmith, has 212 rushing yards on 49 carries, 32 receiving yards on five carries and a 17-yard pass completion to Tavin Kilpatrick. The aerialist on the other side of Benefield's coin, Metrius Fleming, has 14 catches for 263 yards, as well as 200 kick return yards and a 91-yard kickoff return touchdown and a 66-yard rushing touchdown.
Defensively, Aderick Moore leads the Golden Eagles with 29 tackles, while Shannon Fayne and Seth Carlisle each have 25. Tech has eight takeaways on the season, while the Panthers have forced four. The Golden Eagles also have recorded 11 sacks this season, with newcomers Henry Karimu (2.5), Christian Cantrell (2) and Kail Dava (2) recording multiples. Tech had just 13 sacks in the entire 2018 season.
Kickoff on Saturday is at 4 p.m. The forecast for Charleston is calling for mostly cloudy conditions, a chance for a stray shower or thunderstorm, and a high of 86 degrees.
The game is the ESPN3 OVC Game of the Week with Kevin Ingram and Bob Belvin providing the call online. Over the radio, Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano will provide the call on 98.5 KISS FM.