Every year there are Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs that upset Football Bowl Subdivision(FBS) programs. The 2022 season looks to provide a few upsets as well. With Week Zero and College Football beginning last Saturday. The College Football Season will officially begin with Week One this Thursday. There are ten FCS vs FBS match-ups slated for Thursday alone. Here I will preview FCS Eastern Illinois University(EIU) as they will travel to FBS Northern Illinois University(NIU).
EASTERN ILLINOIS PANTHERS – NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES
Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) vs. Mid-American Conference (MAC)
Eastern Illinois will open the season against an FBS opponent for the fourth time in the last
ten seasons when the Panthers kickoff at Northern Illinois on Thursday night
Both have been successful programs. One more recently than the other. EIU will enter Thursday’s match-up as a huge underdog. But could there be a different type of victory other than the score for the Panthers?
EIU Panthers: Hoping to begin a New Era
Hopes are high in Charleston, Illinois with the hiring of EIU alum and former assistant coach Chris Wilkerson. There has not been much to brag about for the last few years. The last three seasons have been for a lack of terms, HAVE BEEN TERRIBLE. The Panthers have not had a winning season since 2017. In that season their overall record was 6-5 and 5-3 in the conference. Head coach Kim Dameron’s fourth of five seasons. In his final season (2018) the Panthers finished at 3-8 overall and 3-5 in conference play. From 2019 through 2021 under Adam Cushing, things did not improve. In fact, they plunged even farther down. The Panthers amassed a dismal 3-26 overall record and 3-17 record in OVC play.
With the hiring of Chris Wilkerson in January. The hope for an improvement came with the announcement.
Recently I asked Coach Wilkerson for his impression of who has stood out to him from spring to fall camp and not just the five captains. Not just on the field but off as well.
So there’s been a ton of guys, you know, it’s not just the guys that are captains but other guys that have certainly been very influential in the locker room in the weight room on the field on a daily basis. But I would say that you know, a guy like Tim Varga has been outstanding, you know, on the field in the weight room and in the locker room. Colin Bohanek is another guy that has played a lot of football and spent a lot of time with the guys. J Valley has done a phenomenal job getting the guys together and continues to do some stuff. But even some new faces, you know, whether they be you know, transfers, one of our quarterbacks Dom Shoffner has been really influential and getting to know guys and doing extra things outside of the practices. And Justin Thomas, one of our wide receivers has also been a guy that has been, you know, very, very good getting to know people and doing different things on and off the field.
Things to watch from the Panthers:
The number one thing to watch.
With a new coaching staff, how will the Panthers respond to the first adversity that they face? Being the first game of the season there is bound to be some hiccups and road bumps. When dealing with these situations how the veterans respond will tell a lot about their progress from last season to now. If they can overcome adversity and make in-game adjustments to improve. This will also be an ongoing trait of this team to watch throughout the entire season.
How will the defense perform?
Coach Wilkerson and Defensive Coordinator Adam Gristick will look to see if they can play at the same level as the NIU offense. If there was one bright spot from last season. It was the defensive play. The coaching staff does want to continue to solidify the DLine depth. This game will begin the process of evaluating the progress to this point.
Offensive Line improvement?
John Cannova is the new Offensive Line Coach. Coach Cannova inherits a line that looks to find their identity. Led by junior Left Tackle Chad Strickland. While the offensive line unit has taken some lumps in recent years. They have played a lot of football. One area that Coach Wilkerson is very pleased with is the cohesion and development that has been made in the preseason by the unit as a whole.
Offensive Players to watch:
Quarterback: I’ll know who the starter is when you do. The starting QB has been one of the biggest secrets in all of Division One Football. With the new coaching staff, it truly has been a QB competition.
Listed on the depth chart as potential starting QBs are:
Redshirt Sophmore Jonah O’Brien, who was on the EIU roster in 2019 as a freshman. Returns to EIU transferring to Colorado State. O’Brien appeared in one game in the 2019 season and recorded 12 of 21 passing for 84 yards one interception and zero touchdowns.
Senior transfer from UNC Charlotte Dom Shoffner. Shoffner transferred from Charlotte where he last played in 2020 passing for 32 yards. Sat out his 2021 season due to injury. He began his career in 2018 at North Carolina Central passing for passing 350 yards. Spent the 2019 season at JUCO Monroe College in Bronx, New York. While there for one season Dom set several school records. In that season his stats were very impressive, The dual-threat style of QB completed 164 passes while attempting 279 passes and 27 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Also rushed 102 times for 441 yards and 14 touchdowns. I believe that a healthy Dom Shoffner will be the starting QB for week one.
Redshirt Freshman Zach Weir returns as the most experienced quarterback on the EIU roster after appearing in four games last season with one start. For the Panthers, last season Zach passed for 386 yards. Completing 32 of 67 passes and one touchdown. Although also threw four interceptions.
Redshirt Senior Wide Reciever Isaiah Hill. Looking to take his talent as a receiver to the next level. Despite missing the entire 2020 season and the first six games of the 2021 season. Suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in practice before the COVID-19 spring season began. Returning to play in 2021 against UT-Martin and then started the final four games of the season. His performance in the final four games earned All-OVC second-team honors. Led the Panthers in receiving with 39 receptions and 493 yards. Ended the season with three straight games with 100 or more yards receiving and double-figure receptions. Received All-OVC Preseason honors this season.
Junior Left Tackle Chad Strickland will be the blindside protector this year. Has made 26 career starts at left tackle. Named a second-team Freshman All-American Offensive Line in 2019. Also played with five true freshmen that played several series in 2019 as well. The new coaching staff has several praising comments about the 2022 Offensive Line Unit. Look for this unit to be much improved this season.
Defensive players to watch:
Sophomore Linebacker Colin Bohanek started all 11 games last season. A Ball-Hawking linebacker last season. Finished the 2022 campaign second on the Panthers and the OVC in total tackles with 89 of which 44 were solo. As well as tied for first on the team and OVC tackles for loss with 11.0. Placed second on the team with 3.5 sacks. Voted as a 2022 captain and is a leader on the field and off the field. Although not named to the Preseason All-OVC team, if he plays at the same level or above this season, he will be in the mix for post-season honors.
Sophomore Safety Jordan Vincent returns for his third season at strong safety. Started all but the last game of 2021, due to injury. Was third on the team in tackles with 60, this also placed him in the top 20 of the OVC. Named to the All-OVC second team. Also named a preseason All-OVC defensive player. Voted a team captain for the 2022 season.
Junior Defensive End Tim Varga appeared in all 11 games last season with ten starts. An All-OVC selection for the 2021 season. Also a preseason All-OVC defensive lineman. Voted a captain for the 2022 season. Finished the 2021 season with 46 tackles, 28 of which were solo. Was tied for the team lead in QB sacks with 4.0, also fourth in the OVC in sacks. Will be a big contributor to the Panthers’ defensive unit.
Sophomore Defensive End Jordan Miles earned 2021 All-OVC second-team honors. Named to the preseason All-OVC defensive unit. Tied for a team-best and conference-best in tackles for loss with 11.0. An on-field leader was voted one of the captains for the 2022 season. Tied for a team-leading 4.0 sacks in2021. Jordan will play a big part in leading what has the potential of being a VERY GOOD defensive unit.
Others deserving mention:
Redshirt Sophmore Running Back Jaelin Benefiel. If an injury does not hamper him this season. Could be very productive out of the backfield in both the running and passing game. Voted a team captain this season.
Senior Cornerback Russell Dandy. Named to the 2021 OVC All-Newcomer Team. Named a preseason All-OVC selection. Had two interceptions last season and will be looking to improve on that number in 2022.
FCS Eastern Illinois travels to in-state foe FBS Northern Illinois
What to expect Thursday:
The Panther will be up against a very good Huskies team. The 2021 MAC Champions are led by Head Coach Thomas Hammock. Last season the Huskies’ record was 9-5(overall) and 6-2(conf.). They earned the right to play in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl.
This season the Huskies return 52 letterwinners from last season. NIU returns 22 players – eight on offense, 14 on defense, and one specialist – who started at least seven games in 2021 OR at least four games in the six-game 2020 season. Four of five starters return on the offensive line, along with quarterback Rocky Lombardi.
Coach Hammock and his staff are well known to have a strong running game. While using the arm of Rocky Lombardi when passing situations arise. Lombardi is also a proven tough and talented running threat as well. Look for a heavy dose of the Huskies signature running game early and often.
The defense for the Huskies was suspect at best last season. To help with the defensive coordinator duties, the Huskies hired Samford defensive coordinator Nick Benedetto as co-coordinator.
I feel that the Panthers can compete with the more experienced Huskies, but in the end, the Huskies will prove to be too strong for the Panthers. But Panther fans will see an overall improvement from last season. I know it’s just the first game for EIU and the new staff. But the overall improvement will be the most noticeable victory for the Panther Players and New Coaching Staff.
Final Score Prediction:
NIU Huskies – 41 —- EIU Panthers – 17
Here is the link to follow and read my 2022 OVC Preview
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