‘Finishing strong’ & ‘It’s time’ the next steps in EIU football turnaround
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CHARLESTON—Head coach Adam Cushing believes a closer look at one-win spring season shows promise for Eastern Illinois football.
The third-year head coach has pointed out several times that his Panthers were in every game following a one-sided opening week loss to Southeast Missouri State.
In fact, EIU (1-5) was either leading, tied or losing by a touchdown in the second halves of three of those four losses after the blowout loss to SEMO.
The most crushing saw the Panthers take a 21-20 lead with just 41 seconds remaining only to see Tennessee State kick a game-winning field goal on the game’s final play.
Thus, a number of analogies have been used by the coaching staff. For example, there’s “finishing strong” to “it’s time” depending on the position group.
“Finishing is a mindset and a habit,” said Cushing, the former Northwestern assistant who was hired at EIU in December 2018. “You have to do it every day. It’s not just one of those things you start talking about on game day.
“It’s finishing every single drill. It’s me telling the coaches that every single drill has a defined finish. It’s me watching the video and making sure the coaches are coaching that finish. It’s the transition between drills, running from drill to drill. It’s so many things that add up.”
Cushing’s biographical sketch on the EIU website states his staff landed the “biggest Illinois based recruiting class in more than 20 seasons (in 2019)”.
Many of those in-state recruits now start on defense for the Panthers.
Rich Central’s Jason Johnson led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles per game at 11 per contest, which ranked ninth in the FCS in the spring. Johnson, a linebacker, wound up a first team all-conference player and was named a HERO Sports sophomore All-American.
“It means a lot to show my hard work paid off, but I’ve got to come in and do it again,” Johnson said after a practice last week.
Marist product Colin Bohanek joined Johnson in the linebacking corps and ranked second on the team with 40 tackles, which was first among OVC freshmen.
The 6-foot, 210-pounder helped seal EIU’s lone win of the spring with a late-game interception over Tennessee Tech.
“The (defenseive) play (call) came in late, so I just let my instincts take over. I kept my eyes on the quarterback and thought he might run at first. I put my hands up and fortunately he threw the ball right at me,” Bohanek recalled of the interception.
Elk Grove Village’s Tim Varga is a key player in the defensive line, including a season-high eight tackles in the win over Tennessee Tech. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Varga started the final three spring games.
“Everything is an experience for me, as it was in high school. Year-by-year I just try to get better and better,” Varga said.
Yet, not every contributor has Illinois roots. Freshman Kaelin Drakeford, a Kentucky native, started all six games at free safety and ranked third on the team in tackles.
Drakeford is one of the players who benefited most from playing in the spring.
“My physical and mental aspect (have improved). Coming up and taking on blocks. Understanding the defense, not just standing by,” Drakeford said.
Pre-conference ‘opportunities to improve’
Cushing — a Chicago native who prepped at Mt. Carmel and played collegiately at the University of Chicago — and his staff have endured a one-win 2019 fall season and a one-win 2021 spring season. They have shaped the roster with players they have recruited, both from the high school ranks and via the transfer.
His team faces a four-game non-conference schedule that begins with a Week Zero date at regional rival Indiana State before trips to SEC member South Carolina and Dayton, a team predicted to finish fourth in the 11-team non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League.
The Panthers won’t open their home schedule until Sept. 18 when EIU hosts rival Illinois State in the 109th Mid-America Classic.
“It’s going to be really important for us to use those opportunities to improve,” Cushing said at last month’s conference media day. “I believe what you’re going to see is the most competitive OVC season in a long, long, long time. You look at all the way from top to bottom and anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday.
“You look at all the players in this league that are coming back for another year and it’s going to be phenomenal, so we’ve got to use these out-of-conference games to get ourselves ready.”
Varga, a sports management major, paraphrased his coaching staff’s mantra.
“The next step. It’s what they’re (coaches) harping on a lot — finishing,” Varga said. “That’s something we struggled with last year. We had a lot of games that we were in and didn’t finish.
“Indiana State is a big game for us. I feel like we’re going to flip the switch here. The coaches say we’re like a faucet dripping water and we’re so close to just ripping the nozzle off and getting the water flowing. That aspect of finishing is going to be huge for us.”
Cushing continued the theme as fall camp opened.
“It’s a mindset and a habit, and if you create that habit, it defines who you are. If you do that every single day, every minute of the day, it will just become who we are,” he said.