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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #1 Eastern Illinois Panthers

RB Shepard Little returns for the Panthers in 2014
RB Shepard Little returns for the Panthers in 2014
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

In the next three and a half weeks as we move closer to the start of the 2014 Gopher Football season, we here at The Daily Gopher will give a quick preview of the Gophers 12 opponents.  We begin our previews with the first game on the schedule, the Eastern Illinois Panthers.

Name: Eastern Illinois Panthers
Location: Charleston, Illinois
Enrollment: 9,775
Conference: Ohio Valley (FCS)
Notable Alumni: Sean Payton, Tony Romo, Brad Childress, Mike Shanahan, Jerry Van Dyke (Luther from Coach), Burl Ives

Last Season:

The Gophers first opponent of the year will be the Eastern Illinois Panthers.  The FCS Panthers are coming off of a season of great success going 12-2 overall and 8-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference and winning their first FCS Playoff game before losing to eventual runner-up Towson.  They went into San Diego and smoked the Aztecs of SDSU 40-12 on their home field.  Their only other blemish on the season was a 43-39 loss to MAC Power Northern Illinois. They averaged an eye-popping 49 points per game last season while giving up only 21 points per game.

Key Losses:

The Panthers will have two major losses from a year ago.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was named the Walter Payton Trophy award winner last season in FCS football.  He now is trying to become the backup behind Tom Brady on the New England Patriots. Garoppolo's leading receiver, Eric Lora is also trying to make the jump to the NFL.  Lora who is in camp with the Minnesota Vikings had 123 catches for 1,544 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Panthers a year ago.  Also moving up due to his success was the former Panther Coach, Dino Babers.  Babers went 19-7 in his two season at Eastern Illinois before being hired last off-season as the new coach at Bowling Green.

Key Returners:

Eastern Illinois still has several important players returning from last years outstanding team.  The passing game will still be sharp for the Panthers as both senior receiver Adam Drake and senior tight end Jeff LePak will return,  Both players were third team All-Americans in FCS last season and combined for over 2,000 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns.  Junior running back Shepard Little also returns for EIU.  He rushed for 1,563 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.  He also added two punt returns for touchdowns.  On the offensive line, the Panthers return a First Team All-American left tackle in Collin Siebert and first team Freshman All-American in right tackle Jimmy Lowrey. All three of the Panthers starting linebackers from a year ago will also be on the field in August.

Question Marks??

The major question for the Panthers will be who will replace Garoppolo at quarterback.  Eastern Illinois has brought in two transfers from FBS schools to potentially fill the void.  According to this article in the Journal Gazette & Times Courier the leader after spring practice was former New Mexico State Quarterback Andrew Manley (Casa De Autos!) Manley redshirted last year for the Panthers, but if his name sounds familiar, he was the sophomore starting quarterback who went 20-31 for 288 yards and three touchdowns for New Mexico State when they beat Minnesota 28-21 at TCF Bank Stadium in 2011. He was later injured that season and got a medical redshirt to gain an extra year of eligibility.

It appears it is Manley's job to win, however he will get pushed hard in fall practice by Kentucky transfer Jalen Whitlow.  While Manley is more of a pocket passer, Whitlow is much more of your run/pass combination quarterback.  Whitlow who was asked to move to wide receiver at Kentucky is a mobile quarterback who threw for just over 1,800 yards ran for another 660 and accounted for 19 touchdowns in 15 starts for the Wildcats.

The Panthers new coach Kim Dameron will have to pick whatever quarterback he thinks will help the Panthers get back to the FCS Playoffs.  Dameron was the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech last season and will bring more of a defensive focus to the Panthers.  Whether they can keep the exciting offensive numbers will be a major question.  Another coach of note for the Panthers is offensive line coach Mike Markuson.  Markuson is a Hamline University graduate.  he was the Wisconsin offensive line coach in 2012 before he was sacrificed to the lambs by Bret Bielema after the badgers faltered early in the season.

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

This will not be the typical easy forgettable FCS game for Minnesota.  While Garoppolo and Babers are gone, the Panthers still retain a good core of explosive offensive players.  They will most likely start a quarterback who has beaten the Gophers before.  Granted, it was a much different Gopher team in 2011 than the one that will be on the field August 28th.  The key to this game for Minnesota will be the Gophers rushing attack and the play of their defensive line and secondary.  Eastern Illinois gave up an average of only 150 yards per game rushing last season, but  they did lose half of their starting defensive line.  If they Gophers can get penetration and work David Cobb and others through the holes that should grow larger and larger later in the game, they should be able to control the pace of the game.  Keeping the flashy Panther offense off the field will be key, as will the Gophers pass rush and secondary play once they are on the field.  The Gophers will find out quickly what they have on the defensive line going against All-American tackles on each side.  FCS All-Americans yes, but still quality linemen.  If they can get a rush on Manley, then they should be able to shut down the passing attack of the Panthers.  If not, they will need to rely on their outstanding secondary to make some plays and keep the game from becoming a shootout.

Final Analysis:

This is a game the Gophers should win.  They in whole are a better team and are playing at home.  However, the Panthers will not be a pushover.  This will not be like New Hampshire a season ago.  This team has a better offense then several Big Ten Teams and will actually test the Gopher defense early. They also know how to beat FBS teams crushing San Diego State on the road last season and nearly beating Northern Illinois.  The Gophers strength will be in the run game, and controlling time of possession and the pace of the game.  As long as they can do that, the Gophers should be able to run out the game in the fourth quarter.  It will be closer than many fans expect I feel, but at the end of the day, the Gophers should come away with a two touchdown win.