By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
The Colonels know that there’s very little chance that they will be able to completely shut down Eastern Illnois’ high-octane, record-breaking offense.
In the past two seasons, no Ohio Valley Conference team has been able to keep the Panthers out of the end zone or off the scoreboard.
So, the Colonels are simply going to focus on doing what they do best defensively when the preseason league favorites meet today in Charleston, Ill.
“As a defense that’s what we always try to do — stop the run,” EKU junior safety Brandon Stanley said.
Game time is set for 2:30 p.m.
The game will be the OVC opener for both the No. 8/12 Panthers (3-1) and the Colonels (2-2).
That run-oriented defensive strategy worked last season when the team’s met in Richmond.
EKU limited the Panthers to a season-low 81 yards rushing and held the eventual OVC champs to just 24 points — their lowest offensive output against a conference opponent.
The Panthers scored at least 31 points against every other league opponent and averaged 39.5 points in OVC games.
Still, EIU picked up a 24-7 win and went on to claim the conference title.
“We did give up a few long runs,” Stanley said of last year’s game. “So, this year we are going to try to limit the big play, take away their short passing game and get some turnovers.”
The Panthers’ offense was impressive last year in head coach Dino Babers first season at the school.
So far this year, its been nothing less than incredible.
Eastern Illinois leads the nation in total offense (617.8 yards a game) and points (44.0 points a game). Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranked first nationally among all Division I players with 1,731 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes. He needs just 153 yards to break the OVC’s all-time passing mark.
Wide receiver Erik Lora has 45 receptions this season and had 14 catches last week for 198 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to Northern Illinois.
That combo has been the major reason for some epic and historic performances so far this season for Eastern Illinois.
The Panthers opened the season with a stunning 40-19 win over San Diego State on Aug. 31. They almost picked another win over an FBS opponent last week.
EIU jumped out to 20-0 lead over Northern Illnois before falling 43-39.
The Panthers also defeated No. 16 Illinois State, 57-24, earlier this year.
The Panthers are averaging more than 430 yards a game passing, but the focus for the Colonels will still be on keeping the defending OVC champs from moving the ball on the ground and making that potent offense one-dimensional.
“You’ve got to stop the run,” EKU coach Dean Hood said. “Coastal Carolina ended up with half a hundred (points against us) because we didn’t stop the run. I really don’t care if teams throw for 600 yards on us. If you stop the run, you’ve still got a chance to win. If they throw for 300 and run for 300, you’ve got no chance to win the game.”
The Panthers’ passing game will provide a serious challenge for an EKU secondary that has had its struggles at times this season.
The Colonels returned just one starter from last season — Stanley — and lost another potential starter to a preseason injury — Keonta Northington.
Stanley, who played for the first time this year at Morehead State last week, and Northington are both back, which should be a big boast for a secondary that is allowing 294.5 yards a game passing — which ranks last in the OVC.
“We lost three out of four guys from last year and Brandon was the only guy coming back,” Hood said. “Then, he gets hurt. So, we’ve been playing for four games with Stanley Absanon being the only guy who had any reps in a game (before this season).”
Garoppolo and Lora have emerged in the past two seasons as the one of the most prolific QB-WR combos in league history.
Last year, Garoppolo threw for 3,823 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Lora had 136 catches last season for 1,664 yards. He now has 254 catches, placing him 13th on the FCS career list.
“We know he’s a good receiver and they like to move him around and put him in different positions,” Stanley said of Lora. “They line him up in the backfield sometimes. So, we are well-aware of where he’s lined up on the field and we will adjust accordingly to what they are trying to do with him.”
After a disappointing loss at home to Coastal Carolina, the Colonels bounced back last week with a 56-24 win at Morehead State.
Redshirt freshman J.J. Jude was the offensive standout, tying a school record by rushing for four touchdowns and finishing with 195 yards — the most by any OVC player this season.
EKU finished with 606 total yards and snapped a two-game losing streak.
“We are going to be able to mix it up with the run and the pass,” Jude said. “If we can put some points on the board, I’m sure (the defense) will get some stops.”
Eastern Illinois was picked as the preseason favorite to repeat as the OVC champions. The Colonels were second on that list, earning four first-place votes.
This game could have a very big impact on which team eventually wins this year’s title and perhaps the at-large playoff chances for both teams.
Still, the Colonels aren’t worried about that, just yet.
“Our guys have a workman-like mentality,” Hood said. “Obviously, there are things being said. It’s conference play. It’s EIU. All that stuff. But, next week they being saying the same thing about Austin Peay.”
Either EKU or EIU has won outright or shared the OVC in seven of the past eight years.
The Colonels had won five straight against the Panthers before last year’s loss at home.
EKU leads the all-time series, 12-8.