(STATS) – Less than 72 hours after one of the biggest victories in Eastern Illinois history, coach Kim Dameron was eying another potential triumph that would be even greater – at least in his mind.
Scoring 14 unanswered points in the final four minutes to stun FBS member Miami (Ohio) 21-17 last weekend snapped a 10-game nonconference losing streak for the Panthers (1-1). However, a road victory over rival Illinois State on Saturday could mean more to the program.
“I would say this would be a much bigger win – even than Miami – to beat Illinois State,” Dameron said. “In-state rival, top 5 FCS team and a member of the Missouri Valley that has been a dominant conference.
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“We've got our work cut out for us. We're looking to forward to the challenge this week.”
Though the ISU (2-0) has won three straight and six of the last seven home meetings of this appropriately dubbed Mid-American Classic, it needed overtime to win 34-31 in last season's 104th installment between the perennial Ohio Valley and Missouri Valley Football Conference powers. Sean Slattery's 32-year field goal in the extra session gave the Redbirds a second consecutive overall victory in the series, and his 33-yard boot as time expired last Saturday sent them to an impressive 9-7 victory over Northwestern.
On the heels of that upset, Illinois State moved up to fifth in the latest STATS FCS Top 25. Eastern Illinois remains just outside of the Top 25, but knows a victory in Normal will only help its perception on a national level.
“It's not going to get any easier,” Dameron said. “We're going to try to put our best foot forward.
“We've got to continue to get better, continue to get the program better.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge this week facing players and coaches from both ISU and EIU was dealing with all the attention from their respective upsets. The calls and texts were plenty for Redbirds coach Brock Spack, making it a little difficult at times to keep the focus on preparing for this rivalry matchup.
“We all know what goes on in that game,” Spack said of facing Eastern.
“I would be surprised if our team didn't handle the success maturely. But I've been surprised before. … (We) have a lot of poise, a lot of belief. We have to be better than we were last week to win the game.”
Illinois State totaled 372 yards against the Wildcats, but only 85 on the ground after running up 271 in a 50-13 rout of Valparaiso. However, it yielded 277 total yards against the Big Ten Wildcats and just 407 while giving up one offensive touchdown through two games.
“Our kids were really tough mentally and physically (against Northwestern),” Spack said. “It was really great to see. … It just felt like we belonged.”
Spack's group could see improved production running ball against an Eastern squad that's allowed 390 rushing yards this season and gave up four touchdowns on the ground in a 38-21 opening loss to a Western Illinois team currently ranked 16th.
Offensively, Syracuse transfer Mitch Kimble has thrown for 473 yards and five TDs but should be in for a severe test against the talented Redbirds defense.
“I thought we made improvements from Week 1 to Week 2, which is something we had to do,” Dameron said. “I'm happy about that but we still got a long way to go in a lot of areas.”
This is one of three OVC-MVFC crossover matchups Saturday as Southeast Missouri State will host Indiana State and Murray State visits Southern Illinois.