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Know thy Opponent 2007: Eastern Illinois Panthers


So I lied and it’s not a weekly feature. It’s more of a, "I got bored at work in my new temp job and decided to write more." It’s good for content and traffic purposes anyway.

So here we are looking at week two, and for the first time since 2001 Purdue will begin its season on the road, meaning the return to Ross-Ade Stadium of football will not be our first look at the Boilermakers. While this season’s opener, previewed last week in this space, will be an interesting test, the home opener should face about as much doubt as last season’s home opener against Indiana State. The reason? We’re facing yet another 1-AA sacrificial lamb that is coming to West Lafayette for a paycheck.

As we know, last season things did not quite go as planned against the mighty Sycamores. Even though Indiana State came in on a very long losing streak and statistically as the worst team in Division 1-AA, the Trees managed to hold their own and only trailed by five points with about five minutes left in the third quarter. We were one disastrous turnover away from falling behind to a team that honestly had little business being on the same field as us. I’ll give the Sycamores credit, they played about as well as they could, took full advantage of every mistake with the two botched punts, and made our bad defense look even worse by scoring 35 points.
Still, they gave up 60 points. The offense had little trouble moving the ball all day long and performed about as well as expected.

This year’s 1-AA home opener Eastern Illinois isn’t nearly the pushover that Indiana State was, but they shouldn’t provide much of a test. Last season was a banner year for Division 1-AA as Colorado, Northwestern, and Indiana all fell victim at home to teams from the lower division, but in two of those three games the larger school was playing one of the better 1-AA teams.
Southern Illinois inexplicably knocked off IU in a game the Hoosiers would later regret deeply as it prevented them from going to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl. The Salukis then qualified for the 16-team 1-AA playoffs and even won a game. New Hampshire was one of the top teams in 1-AA last year and Northwestern was struggling to find its way when the Wildcats got ambushed in Evanston. New Hampshire’s Wildcats also qualified for the 1-AA playoffs and also won a game there. Only Montana State, which beat Colorado, did not make the post-season among those three teams.

One of those teams that made the 1-AA post-season is the same Eastern Illinois Panther squad that will visit Ross-Ade Stadium on September 8th.

Last season for the Panthers:

We face a schedule that features seven teams that went to bowls last year, and Eastern Illinois could almost be considered an eighth. Eastern Illinois finished the regular season at 8-4 last year and lost a first round playoff game to Illinois State 24-13. Surprisingly enough, Purdue and Eastern Illinois had three common opponents last season despite being in different divisions. Both teams visited Champaign to face the Fighting Illini. We won a cold, turnover-filled game 42-31 while they were blasted for one of the Illini’s two wins 42-17. Both teams went to Hawaii for a loss, with Eastern Illinois’ coming at a 44-9 count. Both teams also hosted Indiana State, as the Sycamores followed up their visit to West Lafayette with a 31-21 loss the very next week in Charleston, Illinois.

Though they finished 8-5 overall, Eastern Illinois played a tough schedule. They also had a regular season loss 44-30 to Illinois State to go with the playoff loss, and they lost 15-9 to a Tennessee-Martin team that also made the 1-AA playoffs. The Panthers shared the Ohio Valley Conference crown with Tennessee-Martin, making them the third conference champion (along with Ohio State and Central Michigan) on our schedule this year.

Still, when playing 1-A competition, even the likes of Illinois who was one of the worst teams in Division 1-A last year, they managed only 26 points while giving up 86. Eastern Illinois also went to the playoffs in 2005, 2002, 2001, and 2000 recently, but has not won a playoff game since 1989. They were the Division II National champs in 1978

Eastern Illinois Offense:

The Panthers used to have Tony Romo! That’s good to know in case this game comes down to a winning field goal and the Eastern Illinois holder botches the snap to preserve the win for us. Seriously though, according to the Eastern Illinois football spring prospectus they run a multiple pro-set offense with only five returning starters. This isn’t a good sign, as I don’t they reload in quite the way the Michigan’s and Ohio State’s of the world reload with NFL caliber talent.

They will have a game under their belt already when they travel to West Lafayette, opening against Tennessee Tech at home on August 30th. They will also be in somewhat familiar territory as the real reason for this game has come out. Head coach Bob Spoo used to quarterback the Boilermakers and had an 11-5 record as the starter after Len Dawson in 1957 and 1958. Spoo is also our former quarterbacks coach, and is returning as head coach after missing last season due to medical reasons.

The Panthers return quarterback Cole Stinson and wide receiver Micah Rucker as playmakers from last season. Rucker was a third team 1-AA All-American with 966 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Two key starters on the offensive line also return. Norris Smith also returns at running back. Smith rushed for 656 yards and 6 TD’s last year in a reserve role, and is listed at 5’9" 220lbs. The Panthers lost one of the top backs in Division 1-AA as Vincent Webb 1,405 rushing across the graduation stage with him.

Rucker appears to be the only serious offensive weapon back, and with any improvement by our defense whatsoever we should be able to dominate a young, undersized unit. It will take a special effort by the entire Panther offensive unit to keep up with us.

Eastern Illinois Defense:

On paper it looks like the defense will be the strength of the team early on. Seven starters return from a unit that did fairly well against most 1-AA competition, but got torched against the upper division. Middle Linbacker Donald Thomas lead the group as the Ohio Valley Conference Defender of the Year with 127 tackles. As a unit, EIU were third in the country in turnovers forced last season. The Panthers took the ball away 36 times in 13 games last year, averaging nearly three takeaways per game, finishing just one turnover behind Boston College and Nevada.

The Panthers have an ‘attack the ball’ philosophy on defense, but lost all four defensive backs from last season. That screams one word to me: MISMATCH. This new unit will have to learn on the fly against what will likely be one of the best offenses in all of college football when they face us. As we learned last season, you cannot play as a one man defense for long, and their one man isn’t nearly the caliber that Anthony Spencer was. Look for us to be able to move the ball fairly at will, but expect a turnover or two from a team that specializes in taking the ball away.

Eastern Illinois Special Teams:

Zach Yates is a one man show for the Panthers, doing the kicking and the punting. He hit on 75% of his field goals last season at a 12 of 16 clip, while averaging 36 yards per punt. He also hit on 33 of 38 PAT’s and had a long of 47 yards on a field goal. Their return game is nothing special as Quentin Ponius averaged little more than 20 yards per kickoff return and Adam Kesler averaged only 4.1 yards per punt return.

Intangibles:

Well, the Panthers are expected to contend for their third straight conference title and be a top 15 team in Division 1-AA. That did little for them last season as similar expectations produced blowout losses at Illinois and Hawaii when they stepped up in weight class. Simply put, we’re the deeper, more talented team and should have little trouble in this one.

There is also the factor of this game likely being the biggest stage Eastern Illinois will play on all season. Look for some guys to blow up in their best chance to impress some pro scouts.

Hopefully Bob Spoo will enjoy his return to Ross-Ade Stadium though. It’s always nice to see a Boilermaker come home.

Game Outlook:

This is probably our only lead-pipe lock victory of 2007. I am a firm advocate of there being no reason whatsoever for a 1-A program losing to a 1-AA team ever. Colorado was a horrible team last year and Northwestern was horrible at the time of playing New Hampshire. Only IU’s loss to Southern Illinois was a real surprise, and even then they had the distraction of Hep being gone. We won’t be as bad as any of those teams this season, and I don’t expect anything to distract us majorly from this game. Simply put, we’ve got a lot to worry about as a program if we somehow lose this game.

Unless Tony Romo finds some more illegibility and the rest of the Panthers play absolutely out of their minds we should win in a walk. Eastern Illinois might be able to hang around for a quarter or two, but ultimately our depth and superior talent will prevail. You should expect a game when plenty of second and third string guys will get a look, and barring some mistakes in the punting game like last year against Indiana State we should have our easiest game of the year.

Prediction:

Eastern Illinois will get a score or two with the talented Rucker, possibly another with a takeaway deep in our own territory, and maybe a long field goal, but that’s about it. Our offense will roll early and often. It would be nice to get a 100 yard day from both Sheets and Taylor. Purdue 49, Eastern Illinois 13