JDMill: Pardon the language, but it would appear Eastern Illinois made the Ohio Valley Conference its collective "bitch" last season. 8-0 in conference play, 9-0 overall if you count beating fellow OVC member Tennessee State (which I do) in the FCS playoffs. The Panthers' only losses in 2013 were to MAC powerhouse Northern Illinois and eventual FCS Runner-Up Towson. Was the whole town of Charleston, IL just beside themselves with a season like that?
Brian Nielsen: Interest certainly increased. To tell the truth, I'm not sure anything in sports really gets Charleston going crazy like some places. After 30 years here I'm resigned to the fact that sports just isn't a top priority to many people.
JD: From the outside looking in, it would appear that EIU rode Jimmy Garoppolo to that record. I mean, the guy was a stud, and the Panthers scored over 48 points/game, never scoring less than 34 in any individual game. He threw for nearly 4 TDs/game (53 total) and, according to Mrs. JDMill, he's pretty easy on the eyes too. Was there more to it than Garoppolo, or was it pretty much his show?
BN: As good as JG was, he would be the first to tell you he didn't do it alone. Erik Lora, a free agent rookie with the Vikings, set an FCS record of 126 catches his junior year and again led the OVC last year with 123. EIU had three of the OVC's top five receivers, the league's leading rusher in Shepard Little who had 1,548 yards and Taylor Duncan who was 12 yards short of 1,000 rushing.
JD: Okay, it's 2014, and Garoppolo... HE GONE. Who's taking the reigns at QB and can he be even half as productive as Jimmy G?
BN: Two transfers from FBS schools have are competing - Andrew Manley who quarterbacked New Mexico State to a win over Minnesota in 2011 and Jalen Whitlow, who started eight games at Kentucky last year with a change of coaching philosophy apparently sending him away. If Kim Dameron and his offensive coordinator Greg Stevens have decided on a starter, they are keeping it from Minnesota. Dameron claims both will play and I am starting to believe that. I am no scouting guru but I don't see much separation in preseason scrimmages.
The Enemy Approaches
The Enemy Approaches
JD: Give us some names on the offensive side of the ball that we can expect to hear on Thursday night.
BN: I mentioned Little and Duncan earlier and they are a good speed and power combo, at least at the FCS level. Adam Drake from Charleston is the top returning receiver with 6-foot-6 Jeff LePak, who transferred from Baylor last year, and Stephen Bravo-Brown, who came this year from South Florida, are other good receivers. Whether they show this in Big Ten country remains to be season.
JD: While Jimmy G was running up the score on the offensive side of the ball, EIU's defense was reasonably stout, giving up 22 pts/game. With opposing offenses playing from behind and, presumably passing a lot, it would appear that the Panthers have a very good pass defense. Is that the case?
BN: Last year EIU got early leads that had most teams abandon their game plan and that proved disastrous for them. The exceptions were Northern Illinois, which came back from a 20-0 deficit, and Towson, which came back from a 14-0 deficit in the FCS quarterfinals.
JD: How do you think the Panthers will stack up against a power-run game like the Gophers will throw at them on Thursday night?
BN: Towson ran over EIU last year but not until defensive tackle Dino Fanti got hurt. It has been a couple of years since EIU has played a Big Ten team and I really don't have much of a frame of reference of how EIU can do against the Gophers. I just know when you get paid $400,000 to come and play a team, you aren't supposed to win.
JD: Who are some names on the defensive side of that ball that we can expect to be called on Thursday?
BN: I mentioned Fanti, who is a playmaker up front. Safety Jouran Wickliffe forced four fumbles, had three interceptions and was 11th in the OVC in tackles last year.
JD: Prediction time: Who wins? What is the score? How did the winning team go about making it happen?
BN: If I pick EIU I am a homer and if I pick Minnesota I have the team I cover mad at me. I'll just say after beating San Diego State and nearly beating Northern Illinois last year, a lot of these EIU players will believe they can compete. Whether the Mountain West and MAC are the same as the Big Ten remains to be seen.
Thanks to Brian for taking the time to answer our questions!