SIU coach Dale Lennon said he expected a fast-paced game, one where no lead would be safe, before Thursday night’s season opener at Eastern Illinois University.
Lennon was right about the game’s speed. Both teams ran more than 90 plays, but the Salukis never held the lead as a 6-yard game-tying touchdown run by junior running back Mika’il McCall knotted the score at 28-28 on the third quarter’s first drive. Eastern then scored three unanswered touchdowns to reach the game’s final score 49-28.
The Salukis struggled to keep up with the Panthers’ no-huddle approach throughout the game.
“I feel like the first half we were winded,” said senior defensive end Eze Obiora after the game. “They were moving the ball really fast. We’ve got to be ready for that. We’ve got to be prepared for that.”
When the Saluki defense seemed to finally gain a grasp of the offensive flow, Eastern’s new coach Dino Babers called for some trickery that the secondary wasn’t prepared for.
The game’s first score was a sign of things to come as Eastern set the Saluki defense up with a series of screen passes for short gains.
Then, on the Panthers’ second drive, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo lateraled the ball to receiver Sam Hendricks, a play that happened several times before. This time, instead of running with the ball, Hendricks remained behind the line of scrimmage and tossed a 40-yard pass downfield to fellow receiver Chavar Watkins.
Sensing the screen, the Saluki defense jumped to make a play on Hendricks. By the time Watkins received the pass, SIU’s secondary could do nothing but watch him stroll into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Eastern ran the exact play in the third quarter with the same result.
As well as the Panthers offense started, the Salukis began play just the opposite. Junior quarterback Kory Faulkner threw back-to-back interceptions in the first quarter, but the defense held strong.
A 6-yard run by McCall tied the game at 7-7 to end the first quarter.
It was the first of three touchdowns on the night for McCall in his first game as a Saluki, which is perhaps one of the game’s lone bright spots.
McCall had more success running between tackles than fellow running back senior Steven Strother. McCall finished the night with 56 yards on 11 carries — an average of 5.1 yards per carry — compared to Strother’s 44 yards on 12 carries, a 3.6 clip.
After the game, McCall said he was happy about his performance running the ball but came up short holding on to the football — he fumbled twice — and protecting the quarterback. Faulkner was sacked twice, but ended up on his back at the end of play much more.
“I’m just here to play. I’ll take my reps and make plays,” McCall said. “My first priority is to protect the quarterback. By any means, I try to stop the pass rush in its tracks.”
The Salukis’ most exciting play of the night came with a little more than eight minutes left in the second quarter, when McCall took a screen pass from Faulkner 74-yards down the sideline for a game-tying touchdown, 14-14. The play matched the Salukis’ longest play from scrimmage of last year, had by Strother against Ole Miss Sept. 10.
The Panthers responded to the Saluki touchdown quickly and scored on touchdown passes on consecutive drives from Garoppolo. Garoppolo finished the night with a career-high five touchdown passes.
A 3-yard pass from Faulkner to sophomore tight end MyCole Pruitt brought the Salukis within a touchdown heading into the half. McCall scored his third touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter, but the Saluki offense didn’t strike again.
“After the game, I said ‘There’s one guy in this room that should be getting his butt chewed, and that’s mine,’” Lennon said. “I just didn’t have (the team) prepared and ready to play at the level we needed to. That’s what is disappointing. We’re a better team; we didn’t show it.”
The Salukis will travel to Miami, Ohio Saturday to face division 1 Bowl Championship Series opponent Miami University. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.