CHARLESTON, Ill. — A cannon was mounted in the far corner of O’Brien Field, and after each touchdown scored by Eastern Illinois on Saturday, the sound erupted throughout the facility.
At first, a visiting fan would have been caught off guard by its firing, but as the Panthers pulled away to defeat APSU, 63-7, everyone was prepared, waiting for it to go off.
The cannon was set off nine times as EIU (1-3, 1-0 OVC) didn’t settle for any field goals on its way to rolling over the Govs (0-3, 0-1), eclipsing 600 yards. Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow, who transferred to EIU by way of Kentucky, racked up 296 total yards on the afternoon, including four touchdowns — two passing, two rushing. It was his ability to run which set the tone early for the Panthers, and the APSU defense could not find an answer for him.
“He’s a Southeastern Conference transfer, and he’s got the best speed out of any quarterback we’ve played,” APSU head coach Kirby Cannon said. “He threw the ball really well today and just seemed to be more in command of his offense than he had been in the previous three games. He’s going to be a terrific player for them, I think.”
In the last three contests between the two sides, the Govs have been outscored 191-29. The offensive struggles against the Panthers continued on Saturday, with a couple of injuries to the offensive line playing a factor. APSU ran the ball an overwhelming 47 times compared to 14 pass attempts, but when they did look to air it out, it led to the lone touchdown.
After EIU’s second touchdown, Coach Cannon made the decision to go with freshman Mickey Macius at quarterback, the fourth different player inserted under center this season. Despite having the same result as starter Darrien Boone on his opening series, Macius stayed poised in the pocket during his second drive, hitting senior Javier Booker over the middle for a 35-yard completion. He then found Malik Boynton on a free play streak down the sideline, with the freshman wideout making an impressive over the shoulder grab. After he was marked down at the one-yard line, Justin Roberson pounded the rock in for the score.
Coach Cannon mentioned before the season that redshirting Macius was a possibility, but with an injury to day one starter Trey Taylor, Macius was prepared to enter the game when his number was called.
“They made me aware that,” Macius said. “If anything happened during the game and if they didn’t feel like the offense was going well, they were going to put me into the game and burn my redshirt this year.”
On the ensuing EIU drive, the Govs had their chance to back their opponent up following a sack by Nic Matiere-Bey. However, the stop was overruled on a 15-yard penalty on Buddy Mitchell, putting the Panthers within striking distance. EIU took advantage of the gift, with Jimmy Lera running untouched for a 13-yard score. Afterward, another 15-yard flag for unsportsmanlike conduct was thrown on APSU before going into halftime down by four scores.
“Most of our penalties were from older players,” Cannon said. “I can take those from freshmen, who sometimes don’t really know how to play, but when it’s seniors, it’s a level of frustration. They’ve not had personal success, they’re not had team success, and sometimes when things get bad, then you see some of that.”
In the second half, EIU scored four touchdowns in three different ways, beginning with Whitlow’s five-yard pass to Taylor Duncan for the second time. Just over a minute later, the Panthers blocked Ben Campbell’s punt attempt — the first time Campbell has suffered a blocked punt since 2012 against Virginia Tech — leading to an easy scoop and score.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for APSU, with a trip to Illinois State coming up next Saturday, Sept. 27. The Redbirds are coming off a 34-15 victory over EIU, and will be coming off a bye week to take on the struggling Govs.
But Cannon and his team still have the mindset of looking forward, putting aside all of the early negativity in search of better results.
“I told them it’s our low point, it’s going to be our low point, and it’s as bad as we can possibly be,” he said. “So, every time from now on, we’ve got to be better. We can’t get faster, we can’t get stronger, we can’t do those things in the next few weeks, but if we can avoid penalties post-snap, we can be a better football team pretty quickly.”
Photo by Chris Malone (The All State)