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After rough non-conference slate, Eastern Illinois off to strong start in league play

(STATS) – Regardless of the opponent, coach Kim Dameron’s only concern each week is that his Eastern Illinois team finds a way to be better than the last.

That approach won’t change when the Panthers try to improve to 3-0 within the Ohio Valley Conference on Saturday night at Tennessee State.

While Dameron and his staff put the time in to find ways to expose each opponent’s weakness and limit their strengths, he knows it won’t matter if his own players can’t deliver on their end.

“We’re just trying to keep the focus on us,” Dameron said. “We want to have a great week of practice and not care about where we are or who we’re playing this Saturday, but just try to be the best team on the field.”

Eastern (2-3, 2-0) opened the season by being outscored 74-5 against Western Illinois and a Northwestern squad that suffered its first loss last weekend at Michigan. The Panthers then followed by falling 34-31 in overtime to fourth-ranked Illinois State.

Amid that rough start, Dameron’s attitude and focus never changed. And hasn’t after the Panthers bounced back to win their first two league contests. He simply wants his team to improve each week no matter the opponent’s caliber or classification.

His team has responded.

“I’d say our focus is the biggest difference,” linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said. “We are really focused on the task at hand right now. As a team we have bonded and become a lot closer as a family. We fixed some of things that needed to be fixed from those first couple of games.”

Senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow continues to progress while throwing all six of his touchdowns in the last three games. He’s also thrown two interceptions in the last three contests after being picked off four times in the first two.

Defensively, EIU shined in a 40-16 win over Austin Peay on Oct. 3, but needs to remain focused after allowing Southeast Missouri State to make things interesting with two fourth-quarter touchdowns in last Saturday’s 33-28 victory.

“It’s all about momentum swings in the season and we have it rolling to open conference,” Grugier-Hill said.

Though the Panthers have outscored Tennessee State (3-2, 0-2) 113-29 during a three-game series winning streak, this weekend’s test could be tougher if running back Devin Church is unable to play because of a leg injury. The Illinois transfer is averaging 5.2 yards per carry while gaining a team-leading 357 and scoring four touchdowns. He’s also caught 15 passes for 124 yards and two scores.

However, Whitlow has rushed for 207 and senior Shepard Little for 183 and a TD on 17 carries. Former Vanderbilt tailback Jerron Seymour also could be in the mix.

“Going through this league you have to have two or three quality backs,” Dameron said. “Next man up as far as kids coming to play.”

COLONELS MOVE UP

With its only losses to North Carolina State and at Kentucky in overtime, Eastern Kentucky (3-2, 2-0) moved up three spots to No. 14 in this week’s STATS FCS Poll after rolling to a 48-17 win over Tennessee Tech last week.

The Colonels have managed to play well despite the death of defensive lineman Joey Kraemer late last month and last week’s campus closure due to some threatening graffiti that was found in a university building. Coach Dean Hood simply hopes for an uneventful week leading up to Saturday’s game at SEMO (2-4, 1-1)

“More than you can imagine,” Hood said. “Hopefully we’ll settle into a routine. Our kids and coaches have done a nice job of embracing the new normal that there is no normal.”

SOMETHING TO PLAY FOR

UT Martin (3-2, 2-1) can secure its second straight Sgt. York trophy championship with a victory Saturday over Austin Peay (0-6, 0-3).

Created in 2007 by the Nashville Sports Council and the OVC, the trophy is awarded to the school with the best record in the season series among the league’s four Tennessee-based schools. Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech round out the group.

Named after World War I soldier and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York, this series and the service academies’ Commander in Chief’s challenge are the only two such competitions in college sports to feature a traveling trophy involving more than two teams.

ROLLING ON

Atop the FCS poll for a fifth consecutive week, Jacksonville State (4-1, 2-0) is riding an 11-game conference winning streak that’s second only to Harvard’s current 13-game run in the FCS. Coming off a bye week, the Gamecocks put that streak on the line Saturday night against Tennessee Tech (2-4, 1-2).

“We’ve got a long stretch run,” coach John Grass said. “(This is) a game where we’ve got to go on the road and play well.”

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