In a matchup of two stingy defenses, the Skyhawk unit came up with the big play when it counted the most to preserve a 15-9 win over Eastern Illinois that vaulted the Skyhawks past the Panthers into first place in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Linebacker Markeseo Jackson tackled Panther receiver Justin Duhai inches short of a first down at midfield with 1:39 remaining in the game to preserve the Skyhawks’ second consecutive Homecoming victory and seventh consecutive win this season. Jackson finished the game with 12 total tackles, while safety Kevin Rondo had 10 ½.
Once the official placed the ball in the correct position on the field, Jason Simpson and his players could relax.
“That was a big play. I thought it was a good call and a good spot,” Simpson said.
The decisive defensive stand finally stamped a ‘W’ on a game that had been close throughout and had seen the Skyhawks fail to score in the first half.
“Defense has been the theme for our team this whole season,” Simpson said. “There is no reason to stop this week. Our defensive staff had a great plan. The kids played extremely hard, just like they have every week. They met the challenge and gave us a chance to win this football game,” he continued.
The Skyhawks’ huge win came in front of an announced crowd of 6,935 at Hardy M. Graham Stadium. The large turnout provided a sometimes raucous atmosphere at key points in the game that rattled the visitors and inspired the home team to play with passion.
The win did not come easily for the Skyhawks, who failed to cross midfield on their first five possessions of the game. They reached the 49 yard line with their second possession only to punt the ball away for the second time in the game. On their next possession, the Skyhawks had the potential to put together a scoring drive by starting near midfield again but fumbled the EIU punt and turned the ball over.
By the end of the opening half, the Skyhawks had managed to accumulate only 94 yards on offense, led by running backs Don Chapman and Marcus Dawson, who combined for 30 yards on the ground.
“The first half was mistake after mistake after mistake,” Simpson said. “There has not been many times this year where we have gone three or four plays in a row with only getting two yards. We identified the mistakes and got things corrected in the second half. I think Donald also started running a little harder in the second half.”
The Panthers put their initial mark on the scoreboard early in the second quarter on a field goal by kicker Zach Yates. After a steady diet of runs by Norris Smith and Vincent Webb, the Panthers gave Yates his first attempt. The kick missed but Yates earned a reprieve thanks to a UTM penalty. He made the most of his second opportunity from a distance of 35 yards and put his team on top 3-0.
Later in the quarter, the Skyhawks’ Taylor Brown had a chance to even the score with a field goal attempt from 39 yards but missed wide right.
The first offensive break for the Skyhawks came as the result of a great defensive play by freshman defensive back Dontrell Miller. On the first possession of the second half, Miller intercepted a pass by EIU quarterback Cole Stinson to set up the Skyhawk offense near midfield. The drive, which included a 10-yard completion from quarterback Greg Preston to Brian Kissell and a total of 15 yards on the ground from Chapman, led to a field goal attempt by Brown.
When EIU sent too many players into their huddle, the Skyhawks earned a first down, negating the field goal and setting up a five-yard touchdown run for Chapman that made the score 7-3 in favor of the home team.
The Panthers regained the lead in the fourth quarter by taking advantage of a Skyhawk turnover. EIU safety Seymour Loftman intercepted a Preston pass at the UTM 36 yard line. Chapman alertly forced Loftman to fumble the ball but it was recovered by EIU at the Skyhawk 15 yard line.
Five plays later, the Panthers reached the end zone on a two-yard run by Stinson to make the score 9-7. However, the Skyhawk defense regrouped and junior defensive lineman Joel Kilpatrick came up with a blocked extra point that kept the Skyhawks within two points.
“That was a huge play in the game,” Simpson said.
“That kind of changed the complexion of the play calls, whether or not you have to score one more time or two more times,” he continued.
Despite holding the ball for three fewer minutes than EIU, the Skyhawks outgained the Panthers on the day, earning 207 total yards of offense compared to 193 for the visitors. The Skyhawk defense allowed only 37 passing yards.
The Skyhawks put the game away by chewing up nearly eight minutes on a fourth-quarter scoring drive.
Led by Chapman, who carried the ball seven times on the drive for a total of 33 yards, the Skyhawks covered 69 yards on 14 plays.
Preston capped the drive by scoring on a 1-yard run. Chapman then added a two-point conversion to build the lead to 15-9.
Chapman finished the game with 94 yards on 26 carries.
The Panthers took over with just over four minutes remaining with the chance to jump ahead once again with a touchdown. Beginning at their own 19-yard line, the Panthers remained dedicated to the ground game. Smith and Webb alternated carries on the drive and methodically moved the ball down the field.
On third down, needing four yards to pick up another first down, the Panthers decided to abandon the running game that had worked to that point and let Stinson.
“Our defense had a great plan,” Simpson said. “The kids tackled well and forced Eastern into some long down and distances. In this game it was going to come down to your third-down and mediums compared to your third-and-longs.”
The Skyhawks suffered some key injuries in the game as Dawson left the contest with an apparent ankle injury and wide receiver Jamaal Akbar departed with an injury to his Achilles’ tendon.
The status of both players is uncertain for Saturday’s game at Southeast Missouri.