The start of the 2021 college football has finally arrived. And with it hopes of a return to a sense of normalcy, along with renewed optimism, permeates college campuses from coast to coast.
Seven games featuring FBS or FCS teams are on tap for Aug. 28. But few hold the potential for as much intrigue as when Eastern Illinois and Indiana State renew the long rivalry between the two schools when they meet in Terre Haute, Ind.
The Panthers and Sycamores began their rivalry in 1901 and Saturday’s game will be the 88th meeting between the two schools. Eastern Illinois holds a narrow 43-40-4 advantage in the series to date.
A YEAR AGO: There was no “year ago” for either school. Indiana State opted out of playing during this past spring and Saturday’s game will mark the Sycamores’ first time on the field since defeating Missouri State 51-24 on the road to close the 2019 season – a span of 644 days.
Eastern Illinois, meanwhile, played six games during the 2021 spring season and finished with a 1-5 overall record.
EASTERN ILLINOIS: CSJ Picks them to finish: 7th
EIU, like many other schools, returns most of its roster intact.
But, in the case of the Panthers, the experience gained by a number of young players will be counted on heavily to help steer EIU on the road back to relevance in the Ohio Valley Conference after struggling in recent years.
Otto Kuhns (6-3, 205, Fr.) is expected to be under center for the season opener against the Sycamores.
The highly touted Kuhns completed 44 of his 87 passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns during the abbreviated spring season. He also rushed for 86 yards on the season.
A lot of whatever success Kuhns and the Panthers enjoy this season may rest largely on the play of Jaelin Benefield (5-10, 160, So.), who has shown the potential to be one of the most dynamic runners in the OVC after rushing for 258 yards and a touchdown last season.
Don’t think though that the Panthers will be one dimensional this season.
They could become one of the most balanced offensive teams in the league with no fewer than four reliable targets to catch the football whenever Kuhns opts to put the ball in the air.
Jay Vallie (6-2, 245, grad, SB) caught 18 passes this past spring for 190 yards and three touchdowns while a trio of wide receivers also returns to provide depth for the Panthers.
Matt Judd (6-2, 185, RS-Fr.), Robbie Lofton (6-3, 185, RS-Sr.) and Dewayne Cooks (6-2, 155, RS-So.) combined for 32 catches for 530 yards and three TDs. Judd had eight catches for 109 yards and Lofton tallied 180 yards on nine receptions. Cooks, meanwhile, led that trio with 15 catches for 241 yards. Each scored one touchdown.
EIU also return four starters along the offensive front whose continued development should go a long way in providing protection for Kuhns and opening holes for Benefield.
The Panthers return eight starters on the defensive side of the ball including talented linebacker Jason Johnson (6-2, 200, So.), who was named to the OVC preseason all-conference team, who tallied 66 tackles, including six TFLs, last season. His 66 tackles led the OVC and his 11 tackles per game ranked ninth in the FCS.
Colin Bohanek (6-0, 210, Fr.), another linebacker, also returns after notching 40 total tackles and one interception last season for the Panthers.
SYCAMORES: CSJ Picks Them To Finish: 11th
It appears Indiana State will work with two quarterbacks under center, at least early in the season.
Anthony Thompson (6-1, 210, RS-Sr.), a transfer from Northern Illinois, was named the starter for Saturday’s clash with the Panthers.
Thompson saw action in five games during his time at NIU and brings with him plenty of athleticism and the ability to escape the pocket when the need arises.
Kurtis Wilderman (6-0, 230, RS-Jr.) will also see time at the position in 2021. He led the team with 1,170 passing yards while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes in 2019 and appeared in nine games (three starts).
Wide receiver Dante Hendrix (6-3, 205, RS-Jr.), one of the most versatile players in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, will look to continue to add his name to the Indiana State record book.
He is closing in on the record of 21 consecutive game with at least one reception, which is held by Robert Tonyan (2015-16). He currently has caught at least one pass in 22 of his 23 games in an ISU uniform and has caught at least five passes in 12 of those contests and 11 games of at least 50 receiving yards.
Hendrix, along with teammate Rontrez Morgan (5-11, 175, Sr., WR) give the Sycamores with a pair of threats to return the ball on special teams. Morgan averaged 17.9 yards per kick return in 2017 and Hendrix burst onto the scene in 2018. His 70-yard return for a score against Missouri State in 2019 was the third-longest return in the MVFC that season.
Peterson Kerlegrand (5-9, 195, Sr., RB) paced the Sycamores in rushing attempts and rushing yards in 2019 and looks to pick up where he left off for ISU. His 746 rushing yards were seventh in the MVFC. He added 151 yards receiving (19 receptions) and his 897 all-purpose yardage ranked ninth in the league.
Kaleb Brewer (6-5, 260, RS-Sr., DL), Inoke Maola (6-4, 250, RS-Sr., DL) and Henrik Barndt (6-5, 285, RS-Jr., DL) gives the Sycamores the foundation for what could be one of the league’s most dominating defensive fronts this season
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.