For the third straight year the EIU versus TSU (3-2, 0-2) matchup came down to the final play. The Eastern Illinois Panthers beat the Tennessee State Tigers 19-16 in double overtime this past Saturday night at Nissan Stadium. It was TSU’s first overtime game since 2015. TSU suffered its second consecutive loss in front of 11,000 plus—and not without a little drama. This was the Tigers’ 19th annual John Merritt Classic.
Senior kicker Lane Clark smashed a 51-yard field goal with about three minutes left in regulation, evening the score at 10. Starting QB Treon Harris hurt his leg late in the game on an attempted scramble. As unfortunate as it was, Michael Hughes sparked the offense when he entered the game. The former Hillsboro High standout moved the ball 54 yards on six plays to set up Clark’s field goal. Clark, then made a 46-yarder in the first overtime to send the game into a second overtime. TSU took a 16-13 lead in the second OT on a Lane Clark 40-yard field goal.
EIU took advantage of a pass interference call on fourth down in the end zone. It came on a broken play. What would’ve been the Panthers’ final play in the game, the call gave them first and goal at the one yard line. Tiger head coach Rod Reed was livid.
“It’s disappointing when your kids play that hard and the game is decided by somebody other than the 22 players on the field,” said Reed.
More drama would ensue. On third down of the new set of downs, EIU quarterback Scotty Gilkey, Jr. dove one yard for the called touchdown. It looked emphatically that Gilkey, Jr. was short of the goal line. However, the play was reviewed by the officials (which took less than 30 seconds), and the breath of life on the previous call, along with the new controversial call that was confirmed by the referees, is what helped EIU win this contest. The Tigers finished the game with 12 penalties for 91 yards; although the Tiger faithful would definitely question a couple of those late flags. TSU also had four turnovers.
Hughes finished five of 13 for 76 yards. Harris left the game 12 of 17 for 119 yards. He rushed for another 67.
EIU (3-2, 2-0) had two big plays late in regulation on special teams and defense. Xzavier Shugars forced a fumble on the last TSU drive that Antonio Crosby recovered at the TSU 33-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. EIU failed to score after three cracks at the end zone.
Nick Horne helped set up one score and preserve a 10-7 halftime lead for the Panthers when he intercepted a Treon Harris pass with six seconds remaining in the first half at the EIU 25-yard line, ending the Tigers’ promising drive. On the second play of the game Horne forced a fumble setting up EIU inside the red zone. Gilkey would take it from there, putting EIU on the board first, with a nine-yard touchdown run. EIU pushed its lead to 10-0 on a 32-yard field goal by Nick Wilson midway through the second quarter. TSU trimmed the EIU lead to 10-7 right before halftime on an Earl Harrison one-yard run.
Horne finished the night with 12 tackles. Gilkey finished with 104 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
The Big Blue travel to Roy Kidd Stadium in Richmond, KY this week to face another familiar conference foe, the Eastern Kentucky Colonels. Game time is Saturday at 5 pm.