Eastern Illinois only concerned with itself while hosting nation's top team
Kim Dameron is a simple man who likes to take a simple approach to coaching at Eastern Illinois.
"Our message to our kids is that we have to worry about us," he said. "We don't worry about who we play, where we play, when we play. Let's get better at doing what we do.
"Let's go out on Saturday and be the best us we've been this year. And let's see if it's good enough."
That attitude won't change on this particular Saturday. Even with top-ranked Jacksonville State (7-1, 5-0 Ohio Valley Conference) in town trying to extend a 14-game league winning streak that dates to a 52-14 loss the last time it visited EIU in 2013.
"That's all we can do," Panthers senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. "We believe that. We just want to keep getting better."
That thinking has worked of late.
Since opening with three consecutive losses and being outscored 74-5 in the first two at Western Illinois and Northwestern, the Panthers (5-3, 5-0) are undefeated and have a chance to take over sole possession of the OVC lead.
"We've fought extremely hard over the last five weeks to get to this point, and in a position to where we're one of two now that are undefeated in the league," Dameron said.
The Panthers have averaged 35.7 points in the last six games and benefited from the on-field maturity of Whitlow. The Kentucky transfer threw four interceptions without a touchdown in the first two games but has tossed at least one of his nine TDs in every one since. He's also the team's third-leading rusher with 301 yards and averaged 5.6 per carry on seven attempts in last weekend's 34-20 win over Murray State.
"He is a dual-threat player by running the ball or throwing it," said Jacksonville State coach John Grass, who has yet to lose an OVC game while in charge of the Gamecocks.
"You have to defend him; and any time you are playing a guy that can beat you with his legs or arm, you have to take a different approach defensively."
Whitlow has also benefited from some improved play along an offensive line that's kept him from getting sacked in the last four games after being dropped eight times in the first four.
Though the Alabama native might have some extra incentive against a homestate opponent that picked him off twice during last season's 27-20 loss that ended the Panthers' quest for a third straight OVC title, that's not what Whitlow or his coaches feel is necessary.
"I'm not going to ask any more of him," offensive coordinator Greg Stevens said. "If you start doing that then guys start pressing."
The Panthers are looking forward to the challenge that awaits this weekend.
"We're excited about this opportunity to have the No. 1 team in the country come in to Charleston this late in the year and have this game really mean something," Dameron said.
Jacksonville State is the only team in the FCS to rank in the top five in total offense (fifth with 503.4 yards per game) and total defense (second at 259.9). The Gamecocks beat a Chattanooga squad that's currently third in the STATS FCS Top 25, lost at then-No. 6 Auburn in overtime and outscored their five OVC opponents 199-74.
They held then-No. 13 Eastern Kentucky to 175 total yards in last Saturday's 34-0 rout in a matchup of the league's only ranked teams.
"We have to move to the next week, we are on Week 9 and I feel like Eastern Illinois is just as good as EKU, and now we have to go up there," Grass said.
The Panthers will try to contain quarterback Eli Jenkins, who is 22-0 as a starter against regular-season FCS competition, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and third in school history with 6,399 total yards. Jenkins, who has four TDs and no INTs in the last three games, threw for 288 yards and a touchdown in last season's victory over EIU.
He'll face a Panthers defense that has yielded more than 22 points once in league play and is paced by linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and tackle Dino Fanti, who have combined for 26 1/2 tackles for loss. Grugier-Hill is second in the OVC with 5 1/2 sacks.
Teammate Seth McDonald is second in the league with 9.2 tackles per game.