EIU Football Ends Season Ranked No. 2, Earns Numerous Awards

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Published on November 27 2013 3:46 pm
Last Updated on November 27 2013 3:46 pm
Written by Millie Lange

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Eastern Illinois football ended the regular season ranked No. 2 in the FCS Coaches poll released on Monday afternoon.  The Panthers were also ranked No. 2 in the final regular season Sports Network poll released on Sunday morning prior to the FCS Playoff announcement.

The Panthers finished the regular season at 11-1, 8-0 in the OVC.  They became the first team in school history to post 11 regular season wins and the fourth in Ohio Valley Conference history.  EIU was selected as the number two seed in the FCS playoff field and will host the winner of the Butler / Tennessee State contest on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 1 p.m. at O’Brien Field.  Tickets for the FCS playoffs are now on sale by calling 217-581-2106 or online at www.eiupanthertickets.com

North Dakota State finished the season as the number one ranked team as the Bison were the only undefeated team at the FCS level.  EIU was second followed by Eastern Washington in third.  Those three teams also represent the top three seeds in the FCS playoff field.

Southeastern Louisiana which was selected as the number four seed in the FCS playoffs was ranked seventh in the FCS Coaches poll.  Towson was ranked fourth followed by Montana in fifth and McNeese State in sixth.  Maine, Northern Arizona and Fordham rounded out the top ten.

Coastal Carolina was 11th followed by Bethune-Cookman, South Dakota State, Sam Houston State, New Hampshire, Samford, Tennessee State, Montana State, Youngstown State, Charleston Southern, Jacksonville State, Chattanooga, Lehigh and Southern Utah completing the ranked teams.

Five unranked teams made the FCS playoff field but all were listed among the teams also receiving votes.  South Carolina State, Sacred Heart, Butler, Furman and Lafayette were all in the field.  Four of the five made the field as their conferences automatic qualifier.  Only South Carolina State was selected as an at-large that was not nationally ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll.  South Carolina State is ranked 25th in the Sports Network rankings.

The eight first round games kick off this Saturday with the winners advancing to play the top eight seeded teams in the playoff field on Dec. 7.


EIU Captures OVC Football Awards

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. - Ohio Valley Conference champion Eastern Illinois took home two of the four major 2013 postseason OVC football awards while Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State won the other two in voting conducted by league head coaches and sports information directors.

Eastern Illinois senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was named Offensive Player of the Year while his head coach, Dino Babers, was named the OVC Roy Kidd Coach of the Year for the second-straight year. In the other major awards, Tennessee State junior defensive end Anthony Bass was tabbed Defensive Player of the Year while Eastern Kentucky redshirt freshman wide receiver Devin Borders earned the Freshman of the Year award.

Eastern Illinois led the way with nine first-team selections (including six on offense) and 18 total selections across the first-team, second-team and All-Newcomer squads. Tennessee State was second with 13 total selections (five first-team, six second-team and two All-Newcomer). The first-team included 14 seniors, 10 juniors and one sophomore while the second-team had 13 seniors, 10 juniors, three sophomores and one freshman.

The nine first team All-OVC selections are the most by an EIU team since joining the league in 1996.  The Panthers had eight first team selections in both 2001 and 2002.  The 15 overall first and second team selections is a school record for the Panthers.

Garoppolo became the fourth different EIU player to win OVC Offensive Player of the Year honors joining three time winner Tony Romo (2000, 2001, 2002), Vincent Webb (2006) and Erik Lora (2012).  EIU became the first school to have two different players win the award in back-to-back years since Murray State did so in 1995 and 1996.  Babers won his second straight OVC Coach of the Year Award and became the first OVC Coach since Tennessee State’s L.C. Cole to win the award in back-to-back years.  Cole won the award in 1998 and 1999.

EIU will host the winner of the Butler / Tennessee State game in the second round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday, Dec. 7 at O’Brien Field.  Tickets are now on sale for that game by calling 217-581-2106 or online at www.eiupanthertickets.com   The game will only be available for viewing on the ESPN3 online platform.

Garoppolo put together one of the best seasons ever by an OVC quarterback as he now holds nearly every major season and career Conference passing record and will continue to add to those totals as his team participates in the playoffs. The senior carried Eastern Illinois to a No. 2 national ranking, 11-1 overall record (including a win over FBS San Diego State to start the season) and a perfect 8-0 OVC record as the Panthers won its seventh OVC Championship. In 12 regular season games the Walter Payton Award finalist passed for more yards and touchdowns than any player at the Division I level (FBS or FCS). He currently has 4,489 passing yards (fifth in NCAA FCS single-season history and just 587 yards away from the record) and 48 touchdowns (third in NCAA FCS history and just eight away from the record). He also ranks first nationally in passing yards/game (374.1), second in total offense (377.9 yards/game) and points responsible for (25.8/game), third in passing efficiency (170.6) and fourth in completions/game (26.67). He directed the EIU offense to a No. 1 rank nationally in total offense (599.1 yards/game) and scoring offense (48.8 points/game). Despite the fact his team won games by an average margin of 29.9 points/contest and he was often taken out in the second half of games when his team had huge leads (23 of his 48 touchdowns came in the first quarter and 34 were in the first half this season), Garoppolo threw for 400 or more yards in five contests, including a season-high 480 yards (to go along with seven touchdowns) in a victory over rival Illinois State. In five other games he had over 300 yards passing and he threw multiple touchdowns in all but one game this season. He played some of his best games against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams, including 361 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-19 win over San Diego State and 450 yards and six touchdowns in a four-point loss at currently undefeated and nationally-ranked foe Northern Illinois (in a game EIU led 20-0 in the first quarter). In three wins over nationally-ranked FCS opponents, Garoppolo combined for 1,059 yards and 13 passing touchdowns. He was named FCS National Player of the Week three during the season and OVC Player of the Week a record-tying seven times (bringing his career total to nine, which also tied the OVC all-time mark). Garoppolo also ran for two touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass during the year. Entering the postseason he ranks eighth in NCAA FCS history in career passing touchdowns (113), ninth in career passing yards (12,595) and 12th in career total offense (12,530). Garoppolo is the fourth different Eastern Illinois player to win the Offensive Player of the Year award, joining quarterback Tony Romo (who won the award three-straight years from 2000-02), running back Vincent Webb (2006) and wide receiver, and current teammate, Erik Lora (2012).

In his EIU debut season a year ago Babers earned the OVC Coach of the Year honor after leading the team from a 2-9 record and last place finish to a 7-5 overall record and the OVC Championship (6-1). This season he repeated as Coach of the Year after taking the team to an even higher level, knocking off FBS opponent San Diego State in the opening game and finishing the regular season 11-1 overall and a perfect 8-0 in OVC action. In the process the Panthers won its seventh OVC Championship and will be making its 15th NCAA FCS Playoff appearance (the 7th-most in FCS history), earning the No. 2 overall national seed. The team is one of just four OVC teams to ever win 11 games during the regular season and first to reach double-digit wins since 2000 (WKU). The Panthers reached No. 2 in both national FCS Top 25 polls, matching the school record set by the 2002 team that included Tony Romo. Babers is 14-1 in Conference games over his two years with the program, establishing a new OVC record for a head coach in his first two years in the league. He has directed the EIU offense to the No. 1 ranking nationally in both total offense (599.1 yards/game) and scoring offense (48.8 points/game) while helping Garoppolo to arguably the greatest season in OVC history and one of the top in FCS history. The team won its contests by an average of 29.9 points/game and only had one victory decided by single-digits. His team’s defense has also been solid, ranking fourth nationally in takeaways (32) during the regular season. The team’s only loss of the season came at currently undefeated and nationally-ranked FBS foe Northern Illinois (No. 14 in the BCS standings); EIU led that game 20-0 in the first quarter before eventually falling 43-39. Babers is the second EIU head coach to earn the OVC Coach of the Year award, joining OVC Hall of Famer Bob Spoo who won the honor three times (2001, 2005, 2009), and who hired Babers as an assistant coach in 1987. Overall he is the seventh OVC coach to win the award in back-to-back seasons and first since Tennessee State’s L.C. Cole in 1998 and 1999. The OVC Coach of the Year award is named after Eastern Kentucky legend Roy Kidd, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who won the OVC Coach of the Year award a record 10 times during his career (1964-2002) and retired with 314 victories, second-most in I-AA/FCS history.

Bass helped anchor the Tennessee State defense which ranked fifth nationally in total defense (278.9 yards/game) and sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points/game) during the regular season and earned an at-large berth in the 24-team NCAA Division I Football Championship. The defensive end had 28 total tackles, 14.0 tackles-for-loss and 10.0 sacks on the season to go along with six quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a blocked kick and a safety. Bass ranked ninth nationally in sacks/game (0.8) and 48th in tackles-for-loss (1.2). In one of the Tigers biggest wins of the season, 31-15 at No. 24 Jacksonville State, Bass had four tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble. In a victory over Jackson State in the Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis, the junior had five solo tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks and recovered a fumble as TSU won 26-16. Overall he is the third Tennessee State player to be named OVC Defensive Player of the Year and first since 2011. The other Tiger past winners were defensive end Lamar Carter (1999) and linebacker Rico Council (2011).

Borders proved to be the top wide receiver on a young Eastern Kentucky team while also making a major impact on special teams for the Colonels. He caught a team-best 34 passes for 509 yards and six touchdowns and ranked 10th in the OVC in receiving yards/game (42.4). Borders had his best offensive game of the season in a win at Morehead State as he hauled in nine catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two touchdown passes (both coming in the first half) as Eastern Kentucky shutout No. 23 Tennessee State on Nov. 2. But his biggest impact came on special teams where he blocked five kicks, helping EKU rank first nationally as a team in that category (with nine total blocks). His five blocks were the most by a single player in the FCS this season and by himself he blocked more kicks than 102 teams at the FCS level did during the year. Borders is the second Eastern Kentucky player to be named OVC Freshman of the Year since the award was started in 2004, joining quarterback T.J. Pryor (2009). Overall he is the second wide receiver to earn the honor in the 10-year history of the award.

The All-OVC first-team offense was highlighted by Garoppolo at the quarterback position. He was joined by teammate Erik Lora, who was the OVC Offensive Player of the Year a season ago. Despite missing the final game of the season Lora still caught 102 passes for 1,339 yards and 17 touchdowns; he ranked first nationally in receptions/game (9.3), second in receiving touchdowns, third in receiving yards/game (121.7), fourth in total receiving yards and eighth in scoring (10.0 points/game). His 102 catches are the second-most in OVC history (trailing only the NCAA single-season record 136 catches he had last year) while his 17 touchdowns established a new OVC single-season mark (as did his 33 career touchdowns). Lora was joined at the wideout spot by Murray State senior Walter Powell, who hauled in 13 touchdown passes (fifth nationally) despite missing the final two games of the season due to injury. The running back spot included Jacksonville State junior DaMarcus James and Eastern Illinois sophomore newcomer Shepard Little. James established a new OVC single-season rushing touchdowns record with 23, while also rushing for 1,180 yards. Little came on during the second half of the season and led all OVC players (and ranked 11th nationally) with 1,306 rushing yards while also adding 13 rushing and two receiving touchdowns. EIU also had the first-team tight end selection in junior newcomer Jeff LePak who had 40 catches for 624 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. The first-team offensive line included a pair of Eastern Illinois players in guard Collin Seibert (a repeat first-team selection) and tackle Dominic Pagliara. The unit was rounded out by Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards (marking his third-straight All-OVC selection), Tennessee Tech tackle Wesley Sherrill and Jacksonville State junior center Max Holcombe.

The first-team defense was headlined by Bass and included two repeat selections from a season ago. Those repeat selections were UT Martin senior linebacker Ben Johnson and Eastern Illinois senior defensive back Nick Beard. Johnson had 102 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks, one interception, four pass breakups and two quarterback hurries while Beard had 38 tackles, seven pass breakups and a quarterback hurry for the OVC champion Panthers. Joining Johnson at the linebacker spot was junior teammate Tony Bell and Tennessee State junior Nick Thrasher. Bell ranked seventh nationally in sacks/game (0.9), 29th in forced fumbles/game (0.25) and 30th in tackles-for-loss/game (1.3) this season. Thrasher led the TSU team with 94 tackles (58 solo) while also adding 10.0 tackles-for-loss, two quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Joining Beard at the defensive back spots was junior teammate Jourdan Wickliffe, Tennessee State junior Daniel Fitzpatrick and Jacksonville State junior Pierre Warren. Wickliffe was a key reason the Panthers ranked first in the OVC and fourth nationally in turnovers gained (32) as he intercepted three passes and forced four fumbles (a mark that led the OVC); he also had a team-high 83 tackles and seven pass breakups. Fitzpatrick’s six interceptions led the OVC and ranked seventh nationally (0.5/game) while he also added 63 tackles (second-most on his team), 5.5 tackles-for-loss and eight pass breakups for a unit that ranked 12th nationally in pass defense (174.1 yards/game). Warren was second on his team in total tackles (65), picked off three passes, had 11 pass breakups, recovered a fumble and blocked a kick for the Gamecocks who won nine games overall and earned an at-large berth to the playoffs. Joining Bass on the defensive line are a trio of seniors in Eastern Illinois’ Pat Wertz, Tennessee State’s Antonio Harper and UT Martin’s DJ Roberts. Wertz had 36 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks, four pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles during the season. Harper earned the third All-OVC honor of his career after tallying 44 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss, 6.0 sacks, four pass breakups, a quarterback hurry, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Roberts helped anchor the Skyhawk defensive line with 53 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss, 4.0 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and recovery.

The first-team All-OVC specialists included two repeat selections from 2012 in Murray State senior return specialist Walter Powell (who was also a first-team wide receiver pick) and Tennessee Tech punter Chad Zinchini and a first-time pick in Jacksonville State senior kicker Griffin Thomas. Powell was so explosive returning kicks that most teams either kicked away from him or kicked the ball out-of-bounds to avoid him. He ranked 13th nationally in punt returns, averaging 11.6 yards/return including returning one for an 88-yard touchdown. Although he did not have enough attempts to rank among the national kick return leaders, he averaged 31.5 yards/kickoff return including returning one for a 98-yard touchdown. Powell also had two other return touchdowns called back due to penalty during the season. Zinchini ranked second nationally in punting (45.7 yards/punt, which established a new school record) including a long punt of 70 yards and 28 punts of 50-plus yards during the campaign. In total 20 of his punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Thomas ranks second nationally in field goals made/game (1.7), connecting on 20-of-26 (76.9%) attempts, which is just two away from the OVC single-season record. He also made the two longest field goals in the league this season, connecting from 52 and 51 yards.

The All-OVC second-team offensive unit included two quarterbacks for the second-straight year in Jacksonville State junior newcomer Max Shortell (1,435 passing yards and six touchdowns) and Tennessee State freshman Ronald Butler (1,343 yards and 12 touchdowns). That duo was joined by three running backs in Tennessee State senior Tim Broughton (1,046 yards, 5 TDs), Eastern Illinois junior Taylor Duncan (809 yards, 9 TDs) and UT Martin senior DJ McNeil (1053 yards, 7 TDs). The wide receiver picks were UT Martin senior Jeremy Butler (90 catches, 1203 yards, 10 TDs) and Eastern Illinois junior Adam Drake (75 catches, 1145 yards, 12 TDs) while the tight end pick was Tennessee State junior A.C. Leonard (32 catches, 404 yards, 5 TDs). The second-team offensive line picks were Eastern Kentucky senior guards Justin Meredith and Travon Carter, Eastern Illinois sophomore center Nick Borre, Tennessee State junior tackle Robert Myers and UT Martin junior tackle Charles Sweeton.

The second-team defensive line included Eastern Illinois sophomore Dino Fanti (38 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks), Eastern Kentucky senior Anthony Brown (46 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INTs), Jacksonville State junior Caleb Lawrence (40 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks) and Tennessee Tech senior Malcolm Mitchell (47 tackles, 13.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks). The linebackers included Eastern Kentucky senior Ichiro Vance (52 tackles, 5.5 TFL), Eastern Illinois junior Robert Haynes (66 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Tennessee Tech junior Tra’Darius Goff (101 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 FF). The defensive backs included UT Martin senior J’Vontez Blackmon (70 tackles, 2 INTs), Murray State senior Brandon Wicks (98 tackles, 2 INTs), Tennessee State senior David Van Dyke (52 tackles, 4 INTs) and Tennessee Tech junior Marty Jones (98 tackles, 2 INTs).

The second-team specialists were Tennessee State senior kicker Jamin Godfrey (16-of-26 FGs, 38-of-40 PATs), Eastern Kentucky senior Jordan Berry (43.3 yards/punt average, Long of 77, 28 inside opponent’s 20-yard line) and Eastern Illinois sophomore return specialist Shepard Little (21.5 yards/kickoff return and 24.1 yards/punt return, 2 TDs) who was also a first-team pick at running back.

Twelve players were selected to the All-OVC Newcomer squad; to be selected to the team an individual had to be a first-year player (freshman or transfer) in the OVC. One of the selections was EKU’s Borders, who was the OVC Freshman of the Year. The squad also included four players who were either first or second-team selections including EIU’s Little (first-team running back, second-team return specialist) and LePak (first-team tight end) and both second-team quarterback selections (JSU’s Shortell and TSU’s Butler). The remaining All-Newcomer selections included Eastern Illinois redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jimmy Lowery, Jacksonville State redshirt freshman wide receiver Josh Barge (49 catches, 751 yards, 1 TD) and junior defensive end Chris Landrum (38 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks), Murray State sophomore quarterback Maikhail Miller (2,221 passing yards, 18 TDs; 429 rushing yards, 5 TDs), Southeast Missouri State redshirt freshman defensive tackle Austin Black (52 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), Tennessee State junior cornerback/return specialist De’Ante Saunders (34 tackles, 2 INTs, 18.3 yards/kickoff return) and UT Martin junior quarterback Dylan Favre (1,081 passing yards, 9 TDs; 191 rushing yards, 1 TD)


Garoppolo, Lora Named Finalists for Walter Payton Award

PHILADELPHIA – Eastern Illinois senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and senior wide receiver Erik Lora have both been named finalists for the Walter Payton Award which will be presented in Philadelphia on Dec. 16 at the Sports Network FCS Awards Banquet.

EIU is the only school with two finalists on the list of twenty candidates.  Garoppolo and Lora both finished in the top ten in the Payton Award voting last year marking the first time in award history that a school had two finalists in the top ten.  Lora was fourth in voting and Garoppolo tenth.

This season Garoppolo has led all quarterbacks at the NCAA Division I level (FBS and FCS) in passing yards and passing touchdowns.  He has thrown for 4,489 yards and 48 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.  During the course of the season Garoppolo has set every passing and total offense record (single season and career) for both EIU and the Ohio Valley Conference.  His 48 touchdown passes this year rank as the third highest single season total in FCS history.  His passing total is the seventh highest single season total in FCS history.

Following his FCS record setting 136 reception season in 2012, Lora again led the FCS in pass receptions and receiving yards despite sitting out the Panthers final regular season game.  Lora hauled in 102 passes for 1,339 yards.  He had 17 touchdown receptions which set the EIU and OVC single season record for touchdown catches.  Lora moved into third on the all-time FCS receptions list during the year and set the OVC record for touchdown catches.