Improved EIU running game faces stiff test against conference’s top defense
today at 5:30 am
Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing has liked what he’s seen the last few weeks from his run game. If that trend is to continue, the Panthers will have to overcome the top rushing defense in the Ohio Valley Conference.
“They’re stopping the run,” Cushing said of Saturday’s opponent, Jacksonville State.
Indeed the Gamecocks are. JSU, ranked 12th in this week’s Stats Perform national poll, allows opponents just 87.4 yards per game. The Gamecocks also atop the OVC in scoring defense, yielding just 13 points a game.
“They’re really good on third down, getting off the field because they’re stopping the run,” Cushing said. “When you look at the (video) cut-ups of the third-and-eight-plus (yard situations), it’s something like 28 plays long. They’re putting people behind the chains.
“They’re doing it with a really strong front seven. Those guys are winning a lot of their one-on-one matchups . . . They don’t give you a lot, but we’ve got to find the places where they are giving it and be willing to take it and not try to do anything superhuman.”
On the road against OVC-leading Murray State last weekend, EIU found success running the ball with freshman Jordan Smith. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound rookie stepped in for sidelined starter Jaelin Benefield and responded with a 142-yard performance. Moreover, Smith broke away for an 80-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ first offensive play of the second half.
The effort earned Smith OVC Co-Newcomer of the Week honors and the admiration of his head coach.
“What I just talked about with our football team is kind of what Jordan has represented. Steady improvement from the minute he stepped on campus until now,” Cushing said.
“Our running back room is deep,” EIU super back Jay Vallie said. “We can throw any one of those guys in and be confident that they’re going to get the job done. Most of the time, I don’t even know who’s in the game. I trust that they’re all going to work. I don’t know when they sub in. I just know that they all work together very well and complement each other. They’re very hard runners. They make great cuts and they get it done.”
Saturday’s game marks the final OVC visit from Jacksonville State. Earlier this year, JSU and Eastern Kentucky announced they were leaving the league to join the Atlantic Sun.
JSU alum John Grass has been his alma mater’s head coach since 2014. He was also the team’s offensive coordinator under Bill Clark in 2013.
“When I first got here they (EIU Panthers) were in the Dino Babers-Jimmy Garoppolo era,” Grass recalled earlier this week. “It wasn’t a pleasant trip for the Gamecocks. The first time we were up there it was about a 35-mile-an-hour wind. As a coach I’d never experienced playing in that much wind before, and boy, they knew how to play in it.
“I still say that (2013 EIU) team could have won a national championship. They had to play in a snow game (in the FCS quarterfinals) and had to play a Towson team that I think they could have beaten if the weather conditions would have been better. That was a really, really good football team. We had three out of our conference make the playoffs that year.”
The next step
Last Sunday, Eastern took a two-touchdown, second-half lead on Murray State only to see it evaporate in just over five minutes.
“That’s the next step of the evolution growing up with this young football team, learning how to play with those leads,” Cushing said. “We’ve really come a long, long way offensively throughout this year and made big plays, and yet we didn’t make big plays when it mattered.”
Murray State, the nation’s No. 14 team, pulled away for a 41-27 victory.
“What I said to the guys after the game was as much as this one hurts the great thing that we have going for us is the game we have on Saturday,” Cushing said. “We normally have 24 hours to go from whatever we are back to 0-0, we didn’t even have that amount of time (this week). We ended up flushing a little bit sooner to get it out of our heads yesterday (Monday) morning.”
Meanwhile, Jacksonville State lost its first game of the spring to Austin Peay 13-10.
“I’m sure they’re going to be really, really hungry coming in this week,” Cushing said.
Kicked by the long game
Over the course of the last three weeks, EIU has seen opposing kickers bomb field goals beyond 50 yards each game.
“If you asked me, these are the best kickers in America and I’m not just talking at the FCS level either. These guys are incredible. Those are the longest field goals I’ve seen week-to-week-to-week in my entire football career,” Cushing said. “It’s an enormous part of the game. That is an advantage.”
Where to find the game
EIU (1-4 overall, 1-4 OVC) hosts Jacksonville State (7-2, 4-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at WEIU.net.