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Defense stands tall as Golden Eagles rally to top Eastern Illinois

Defense stands tall as Golden Eagles rally to top Eastern Illinois

By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information

CHARLESTON, Ill. – When Eastern Illinois blocked Hayden Olsen's field goal and returned it for a touchdown as time expired in the first half, a casual observer would probably think the Panthers would use that to build momentum.

Instead, it was Tennessee Tech that built on that miscue, answering with 17 unanswered points to break their five-game losing streak with a 20-17 victory over the Panthers on Saturday at O'Brien Field.

Tech (2-6, 1-3 Ohio Valley Conference) shut down the Panthers in the second half, ending its two-game turnover-forced drought with two big fumble recoveries – one leading to a score, the other giving the Golden Eagles the opportunity to go into victory formation as EIU was marching to give kicker Stone Galloway a chance to knot the game up. That never happened.

Instead, EIU backup quarterback Zach Weir was blindsided by Caleb Nichols for the sack, coughing up the ball for Ethan McLaurin to scoop up the ball allowing Tech to kneel and end the game.

The second half saw Eastern hold on the ball for just 9:24, rushing for 42 yards and passing for 55. The Panthers turned the ball over on downs twice and punted the ball away on their other three drives.

EIU (2-6, 1-2 OVC) scored first as the Panthers marched from their own 23 and reached the Tech 11 to get the first down. Cameron Hudson forced M.J. Flowers out of bounds at the 5, then Seth Carlisle stopped starting QB Jonah O'Brien twice – once for a gain of three, the other for a loss of two – halting EIU at the 4. Galloway lined up for the 21-yard field goal, seeing it through for the early 3-0 lead.

Tech was able to hold the Panthers back to their own 13, the punt sailing to the Golden Eagle 45 to start the next drive. The first quarter ended and the second began as Tech was able to eat up 52 yards on nine plays as Olsen's field goal – a 20-yard shot – was good to tie the game.

After EIU went three-and-out, the Golden Eagles started building some momentum on three Jayvian Allen carries for 19 yards, but the first play after moving the chains saw Colby Smith intercept Jeremiah Oatsvall at the Tech 33, giving the Panthers a short field. EIU got to the Tech 2 facing 4th-and-1, but a personal foul gave Eastern a fresh set of downs and O'Brien pushed in for a one-yard score on the next play. Galloway's PAT was good, making it a 10-3 lead.

Tech got the ball back with 42 seconds remaining in the first half and Oatsvall was a surgeon, slicing apart the EIU defense for four big gains and getting the Golden Eagles to the Panther 20 with just enough time for Olsen to stand in for a chipshot. As the ball went up, Jordan Vincent blocked the kick and Mark Aitken came up with the ball. Aitken ran up the right sideline and had just enough blocking to keep the Golden Eagles from stopping the play. Sixty-five yards later, he was in the end zone.

In a matter of seconds, Tech went from a potential 10-6 deficit at the half with the ball back to start the second half to suddenly down 17-3 at the half following Galloway's PAT.

The Golden Eagles wasted no time on its first drive in the new half. Despite a fumble giving a slight scare midway through the series, Tech recovered the ball and continued to chew up 75 yards on 12 plays. The final play was a gutsy one – facing 4th-and-3 at the EIU 16, Oatsvall fired to Quinton Cross on a slant in the middle into the end zone for the score. Olsen's PAT was good and it was a one-possession, 17-10, game once more.

O'Brien did not play for the Panthers in the second half as Weir came on under center. The first play was disastrous for Eastern as Jaelen Benefield rushed the ball for 13 yards, but Josh Reliford knocked the ball loose on the tackle with Cameron Hudson coming up with the ball on the EIU 29.

A penalty moved Tech back and not much headway built, but the position was still enough for Olsen to drill the field goal from 46 yards and inch Tech closer at 17-13, where the score stood as the third quarter came to a close.

After EIU turned the ball over on downs at the Tech 32 early in the fourth frame, the Golden Eagles pulled together a 12-play, 68-yard drive. Tech appeared to have a touchdown on a two-yard pass to Justin Pegues, but an ineligible receiver call pushed the Golden Eagles back to the 7. It didn't matter as Oatsvall was able to get the ball to Brad Clark in the end zone for the go-ahead score with Olsen's PAT adding the exclamation point.

Tech just had to hold on as the Panthers got the ball back with 1:12 remaining in the contest. After Weir moved the chains on the first play on a 13-yard rush, he got close to midfield with a 19-yard pickup to Benefield. With 33 seconds left, the Panthers got into Tech territory on a pass to Willman Cooper at the 49, then Weir spiked the ball after the chains moved, giving EIU 22 seconds.

On the next play, Caleb Nichols found an opening as Weir looked for a receiver. Nichols sacked the Panther QB and McLaurin was there for Tech to end the threat, allowing Oatsvall to kneel and run the clock out.

Oatsvall ended the day with 181 yards on 20-of-31 passing with two touchdowns, while David Gist led the team in rushing – 99 yards on 13 carries – and receiving – four catches for 37 yards. Weir was 6-for-15 passing for 63 yards, after O'Brien was 1-for-4 for 10 yards. EIU picked up 161 yards on the ground, led by Benefield with 79 yards on 14 carries.

Hudson and Carlisle led Tech with seven tackles and a pass breakup each, while Hudson also had an 11-yard fumble recovery. Colin Bohanek led the Panthers with 15 tackles, including one for-loss, with two fumbles forced.

Tech returns to action next week as the Golden Eagles host OVC newcomer Lindenwood for the annual Homecoming game.

Photo | Sandy King, EIU Athletics

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