Story and photo courtesy of Eastern Illinois Athletics
CHARLESTON, Ill. – Erik Lora broke one Ohio Valley Conference record. Head coach Dino Babers joined a select group of OVC coaches. Eastern Illinois returned to the top of the OVC as the Panthers won at least a share of their sixth OVC crown since 2001 with a 39-20 win over Southeast Missouri on senior day Saturday afternoon at O’Brien Field.
EIU improved to 7-3 on the season, 6-1 in the OVC. The Panthers can win the title outright with a UT Martin loss against Tennessee Tech or Tennessee State in the final two weeks. SEMO fell to 3-7, 2-5 in the OVC.
Lora caught 15 passes for 178 yards as he broke the OVC record for receiving yards in a season passing SEMO’s Willie Ponder (2002). Lora now has 1,479 yards this season which ranks 14th all-time on the FCS single season list. He has 115 catches on the season which is tied for 5th all-time on the FCS single season list.
Of Lora’s 15 receptions his biggest was a 43-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Garoppolo with 40 seconds left in the third quarter which gave EIU a 23-20 lead and momentum to close out the game.
“Erik’s TD catch was at a time when we needed it,” said Babers. “That touchdown helped us flip momentum especially when we scored going into the wind. I have to credit Chavar Watkins for a great block on that play that helped spring the individual effort Lora made to reach the end zone.”
As for Babers he became only the fourth coach in OVC history to win the league title in his first season as a collegiate head coach. He joins Boots Donnelly (Austin Peay, 1977), Jason Simpson (UT Martin, 2006) and Dean Hood (Eastern Kentucky, 2008) in that select group.
The Panthers opened the game with some momentum as the defense stopped SEMO’s running attack with a 3-and-out. The offense drove down the field covering 60 yards in 10 plays with Jake Walker capping the drive with an 8-yard run. EIU settled for a Cameron Berra 24-yard field goal with 1:27 left in the first quarter after a pass was broken up in the end zone on third down by SEMO.
The Redhawks battled back and trailed 16-14 at the half as Renard Celestin scored on a 4-yard run and Scott Lathrop had a 1-yard run in the second quarter. EIU scored on a Sam Hendricks touchdown reception after the pass was tipped at the goal line and dropped in Hendricks hands. The extra point was no good.
SEMO took the lead to open the third quarter with back-to-back field goals by Drew Geldbach of 30 and 22 yards. The Panthers defense which had allowed SEMO to rush for 163 yards in the first half limited the Redhawks to only 31 yards on the ground in the second half. Lathrop ran for 102 yards to lead SEMO on the day. Levi Terrell had 96.
“We knew that SEMO was a really good running team, a team that likes to run the option,” said linebacker Adam Gristick. “They were able to get some big yards in the first half. At halftime we talked about making adjustments and filling gaps to allow our D-Line to make plays.”
The defensive line did help make plays for the Panthers as they recorded ten tackles for loss for 47 yards and five sacks for 35 yards. Gristick was among three players tied for the team lead with nine tackles. Greg Mahan posted two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss along with a quarterback hurry and seven tackles.
The EIU defense responded to Lora’s go ahead score as they held SEMO to two straight 3-and-outs with another series ending after five plays. EIU’s offense answered the call to each defensive stop by putting points on the board.
Berra knocked home his second field goal of the day from 40 yards out with 12:47 to play. Taylor Duncan and Walker both tacked on fourth quarter rushing touchdowns. Walker had 132 yards rushing. Duncan added 53. Jimmy Garoppolo was 25-of-35 for 257 yards and two touchdowns.
EIU wraps up the regular season next Saturday with a non-conference game at Central Arkansas. Kick off is at 5 p.m. with UCA having already locked up a spot in the FCS playoffs by winning the Southland Conference title last week.