By Richard Moser
Special to College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This story is courtesy of Eastern Illinois athletics.
CHARLESTON, Ill. – Eastern Illinois forced a timely turnover which resulted in a Panthers touchdown for the second straight week as EIU beat Eastern Kentucky, 21-7, Saturday afternoon on Senior Day at O’Brien Field.
The win keeps the Panthers FCS at-large playoff hopes alive as they finished the regular season 7-4 overall, 7-1 in the OVC.
Eastern Kentucky, which was ranked No. 23 in this week’s STATS FCS Media Poll, ended the year at 6-5 overall, 5-3 in the OVC.
Leading 7-0 early in the third quarter EIU’s defense forced two EKU quarterbacks out of the game at a crucial juncture of the game.
EIU had a mishandled snap on the punt on its opening drive of the third quarter which gave EKU the ball at the EIU 25 yard line.
On the second EKU play Thomas Coronado forced an incomplete pass by Bennie Coney as Coney was injured on the play.
The next play Dino Fanti sacked back-up quarterback Kyle Romano forcing a fumble that Nick Horne scooped up and returned 62 yards for a touchdown.
Romano was injured leaving third string quarterback Tyler Swafford to finish the game.
In last week’s win over UT Martin, Fanti hit the Skyhawks quarterback from behind forcing an interception that Coronado returned for a touchdown.
Fanti finished the day with five tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two quarterback hurries.
Already the EIU career leader in tackles for loss, Fanti became the Panthers single season record holder on Saturday afternoon.
As both teams played the field position game in the opening half in a howling North wind, James Brooks slipped through a tackle for a nice punt return that gave EIU the ball at midfield.
Malik Harrison ripped off a 34-yard run on the second play of the drive to put EIU inside the 20-yard line. Jalen Whitlow capped the drive with a 9-yard run that gave EIU a 7-0 lead with 1:06 to play in the opening half.
Harrison would provide more offense in the second half as he led the Panthers with 79 yards rushing on 13 carries.
He found the end zone from nine yards out with 4:35 left in the third quarter that put EIU up 21-0 at the time.
The Colonels used a big special teams play in the fourth quarter to stay alive.
LaJuan Smith blocked a punt that was picked up by Tyrell Curry and returned 35 yards for a touchdown with 4:20 to play.
EKU used that play as its only real spark as the Colonels were limited to 40 yards rushing and 153 yards passing on the day.
Trailing 21-7, EKU got the ball back with 1:44 to play but had the drive end as Bradley Dewberry had the fifth interception of the day for EIU’s defense.
Swafford had four of the interceptions as the third string quarterback going 10-fo-24 for 99 yards.
Jourdan Wickliffe had two of the interceptions as the senior moved into a tie for second on the EIU career interceptions list with 14.
Dewberry added two picks and a game high eight tackles. Dylan Chatman had the final interception for EIU as the Panthers had a total of seven turnovers gained for the afternoon.
Chris Kelly led EKU with ten tackles including two tackles for loss. Noah Spence, the FCS leader in sacks and tackles for loss, had seven tackles with none for loss.
EIU’s offensive line played its seventh straight game without allowing a sack.
Prior to the game the Charleston area was hit with just under 2 inches of snow that was cleared prior to the game by the EIU Grounds Crew.
The FCS playoff selection show takes place on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. on ESPNU.