Panthers Come to Champaign for Opener

The 2006 Fighting Illini football season will commence this Saturday evening as the Panthers from Eastern Illinois make the short trek up I-57 to battle the orange and blue. Brad Leshyn previews the Illini's first game in Ron Zook's second season as head coach.

The 2006 Fighting Illini football season will commence this Saturday evening as the Panthers from Eastern Illinois make the short trek up I-57 to battle the orange and blue. The Panthers return 16 starters from last season's Ohio Valley Conference champions. One person conspicuously missing, however, will be head coach Bob Spoo, who will miss 4-6 weeks after some unspecified late August surgery. In his stead, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mark Hutson, a 1989 graduate and two-time All-American from the University of Oklahoma, will handle the coaching duties. While it is impossible to utter the name Bob Spoo without a chuckle, it is also impossible to deny the results he has produced in his 19 years piloting the Panthers ship. He has compiled a 119-98-1 record which includes two victories over D-1 schools (both from the MAC) and seven NCAA I-AA playoff appearances. Last fall's 9-2 regular season campaign ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Southern Illinois Salukis.

When the Panthers have the ball
Nine starters return from an offense that averaged 26.6 points per game in 2005, including four fifths of the offensive line. Three of the big uglies - Eric Johnson, Jon Rueter, and Anthony Rubican - are preseason All-Ohio Valley picks. They will be opening holes for senior tailback Vincent Webb, who stands seventh on EIU's all-time rushing list with 2,828 career yards. With a big senior season he could vault himself into the runner-up slot, but Poke Cobb's school record of 5,042 yards appears safe. Webb has had a stiff challenge this summer from sophomore Norris Smith, and Spoo says this is as deep a stable of backs he has had in years. The field general will once again be Mike Donato, who threw for 1,747 yards and 9 TDs a year ago.

When the Illini have the ball
The defense returns seven starters from a unit that forced 41 turnovers (21 fumble recoveries, 20 interceptions) in 2005, eight of which were returned for scores. The headliner is senior LB Clint Sellers who is on the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented annually to the top I-AA defensive player. Sellers captured the Ohio Valley Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2005 thanks to his 121 tackles, 13 TFL, and five picks. Safety Tristan Burge, a second team All-American a year ago, has fully recovered from an injury that forced him to miss last year's playoff tilt vs. SIU. He has a nose for the ball (4 interceptions in 2005) and the end zone, as he registered four defensive touchdowns a year ago. The Panthers also boast a face familiar to many Illini fans as Jeff Sobol currently is sitting second on the depth chart at both DE and DT.

Fun Fact
Aside from John Jurkovic and Tony Romo, EIU hasn't exactly been a pipeline into the NFL. However, if you want to coach in the NFL, EIU is the place for you. Mike Shanahan is a coaching veteran whose resume includes two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos. With the recent hirings of Brad Childress by the Minnesota Vikings and Sean Payton by the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers now boast three current NFL coaches, which is tied for tops in the league with San Diego State (Joe Gibbs, Herman Edwards, John Fox) and Southern Cal (Mike Holmgren, Jeff Fisher, Jack Del Rio).

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