Judd gives Eastern Illinois return game a spark
today at 4:18 am
When Matt Judd returns a kickoff for the Eastern Illinois football team, his head coach notices a number of good traits.
“Matt’s best qualities as a returner are his best qualities overall – his toughness and his desire,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said. “You see the same thing at receiver, making tough catches.”
When the team reviewed video of last week’s 28-15 loss at Tennessee Martin, in which Judd racked up 98 return yards on three kickoffs, Cushing noticed another key attribute.
“He trusts his teammates,” Cushing said of Judd, who is averaging 26.2 yards per return. “You’ll pause the video and the seam isn’t there, then all of a sudden, the seam is enormous. He just trusts that he can run straight ahead to where the seam is intended to be and his guys are going to do the job.”
Judd and the Panthers (0-2) take their conference-leading kick return game to Nashville Sunday for an Ohio Valley Conference game against Tennessee State (0-2) at 1 p.m. (ESPN+)
Judd currently owns the highest kick return average at EIU since 2009, when Lorence Ricks returned 10 kicks for a 30.6-yard average. Through the team’s first two games, Judd’s return average would rank eighth in school history for a full season.
Against UT Martin, the redshirt freshman from Lincoln-Way East High School broke off a 53-yard return. The season opener against Southeast Missouri included a 39-yarder.
Cushing noted that Judd is a good fit at returner despite a lack of blazing speed.
“I’m not poking fun at him, but I don’t know if he’s going to beat a lot of people in a 40-yard dash,” Cushing said. “Be he just runs hard and he trusts his teammates.”
Stepping up at WR
Judd and sophomore DeWayne Cooks have contributed greatly at wide receiver for the Panthers in the absence of the injured Isaiah Hill, who led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches in 2019.
Judd, a redshirt freshman, had five catches for 73 yards and his first career touchdown against UT Martin. Cooks had five receptions for 67 yards and a TD.
Both efforts were career bests for Judd and Cooks.
Cushing said Hill is not likely to return soon from his undisclosed injury.
“Isaiah Hill is not coming along,” he said. “I don’t anticipate him playing at this point. It’s unfortunate, but obviously we’ve seen DeWayne Cooks and Matt Judd make some enormous plays in his stead. We miss a guy like Isaiah.”
Despite not being in uniform, Hill is still making an impact.
“My favorite part about Isaiah are the texts that I get from him right before the game that say, ‘Hey Coach, let’s get this thing,’” Cushing said.
Cushing said the Panthers as a whole are getting several other players healthy during this spring season.
“We’re getting more and more guys back,” he said. “We’re going to have more guys available for this game than we had last week. So, that’s exciting.”
Memories of TSU
Eastern beat Tennessee State, 49-38, on Nov. 9, 2019 for Cushing’s first win as a collegiate head coach.
The game included an icy Gatorade shower for EIU’s coach on a 50-degree day.
“I’ll take a Gatorade shower in any weather if it means a win on a Saturday or Sunday this season,” Cushing said. “The best memory is we weren’t dominating by any stretch, but we just kept fighting. It was back and forth, and those are probably the most fun to win because the guys just kept on battling. That’s everything that we want this program to stand for.”
News and notes
The Panthers have yet to score a point in the first or third quarters this season, which Cushing said likely will lead to “simplifying the plan a little bit” on offense. “As much as you want to script all the plays and have the guys have all the answers, sometimes it’s just going back to our base stuff.” EIU has the lowest time of possession in the OVC at 27 minutes, 33 seconds a game. … The Panthers are the least penalized team in the conference through two games at 25 yards per game. … Eastern’s offensive line has allowed an OVC-low one sack in its first two games. … Tennessee State has the second-best kickoff return average in the OVC (21.9 yards), trailing EIU. … Junior Cam Wyche, a transfer from NAIA Lindsey Wilson College, leads TSU and the conference in receiving with 74 yards a game.
Where to find the game
The Panthers will kick off at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 14 in Nashville in a game that will air on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at WEIU.net.