After so much waiting, what’s another week? Flyers football opens 2021 season hosting Eastern Illinois on Saturday

For the first time since Nov. 23, 2019, the Dayton Flyers football will take the field at Welcome Stadium for a meaningful game. Photo courtesy of Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett | Sports Editor

It is now one week later than it was supposed to be, but for the first time in almost two years, the University of Dayton football team will take the field Saturday at 1 p.m. against Eastern Illinois.

658 days removed from the last game at Welcome Stadium (51-38 win over Butler Nov. 23, 2019), the Flyers will face the Panthers to open the 2021 season for both teams. 

“You always get excited for that first game of the year, it’s just natural,” Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin said Sept. 1, before their game against Robert Morris was cancelled because of Covid issues in the Colonials’ program. “After all the hard work during the winter, and then camp in the spring and so forth, but this year it is a little more special.”

But for the Flyers, this was supposed to be happening last week. Up until around 8:45 a.m. Friday, the Flyers were set to play the Colonials. At that time, Athletic Director Neil Sullivan walked into Chamberlin’s office, and Chamberlin said could tell right away that it wasn’t good news.

For players like senior safety and co-captain (along with being on several preseason award watch lists) Brandon Easterling said finding out in an emergency Zoom meeting that morning was “not a good feeling.”

“It was an emotional day, but we’ve moved on and we’re ready to go now.”

In a meeting between Chamberlin, Easterling and the other team captains – junior running back Jake Chisholm, senior quarterback Jack Cook and senior safety Joe Bubonics – one quote from Cook stuck out to Easterling. 

“(Cook) said after a game, whether you win or lose, we have a 24-hour rule where you soak it in and you can either celebrate or mourn whatever happened in the game, and this is one of those 24-hour rules,” Easterling said. “We got the news, but then instantly the next day, we had an inter-squad scrimmage. And I think now guys are really starting to realize more than ever, that you (have) to take advantage of every opportunity you have because it can be taken away whenever.”

A key player joining Easterling in returning to the defense for the Flyers is redshirt junior Flyer (defensive back) Zach Rumpke, who finished with 66 total tackles, 6 for loss, 3 sacks, and a game-clinching interception in the 2019 season-opening win over No. 14 Indiana State. 

“We’ve been practicing for almost two years now,” Rumpke said Sept. 1. “Roster-wise, I think that everybody, (senior tight end) Andrew (Holderer) mentioned it talking about technique, there’s going to be technique at an all time high. And when the game happens and guys who haven’t been on the field in a while, or at all, step out there and things go differently than planned, I mean, we’ll be able to find out how ready we really are.”

A focus area for the Flyers has been one that Rumpke mentioned: having players step onto the field for the first time. For the Flyers in 2021, the offensive line especially lacks a single start or any meaningful action at the college level. All ten players across the board on the two-deep depth chart are redshirt or true freshmen. 

Holderer, who Rumpke referred to, will be a key piece in helping the young offensive line mesh and find their groove, starting with game number one. While the outside-looking in may look unsteady, the senior from Edwardsville, Ill., is confident in the young guys.

“That’s probably the thing I’m most excited about from this past spring,” Holderer said Sept. 1. “And now, those guys have stepped up big-time. They all haven’t taken a single snap yet and I think that it’s going to be huge when they come out (on the field). They’re just fighters, every time they get knocked down or something goes wrong, they’re right back on the ball and ready to go. So I think we’re just going to show what kind of grit we’ve got.”

The experience of Cook and Chisholm will also be big in helping the offensive line adjust, as Chisholm said before fall camp began Aug. 8. But for Chisholm, the feeling he expects when he carries the football for the first time in a real game again will be a mix of emotions.

“I’m excited, very excited,” Chisholm said. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little nervous too. It’s been almost two years since the last time I carried a ball in a real game, so (I’m) just going to have to get that first hit over with and get used to that feeling again, and I think I’ll be ready to go.”

Although he will be the one issuing the hit instead of taking one, Easterling also anticipates the first tackle he makes against a team not wearing Dayton colors.

“To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you (what it’s going to be like),” Easterling said. “It’s definitely not going to be like a normal first hit of a season, it’s going to be very emotional, but it’s going to be needed because that first hit is always the one to get the jitters out.”

For Easterling, being back on the field in front of fans is going to make for an “emotional day,” and Chisholm felt conflicted watching stadiums full of college football fans last weekend.

“It was exciting,” Chisholm said. “And at the same time, it was disappointing too because you’re like, ‘It’s Saturday, we should be playing right now, I shouldn’t even be able to watch these games.’ But I enjoyed being able to relax and sit on the couch and enjoy (the games) like a normal fan, but it was a mix of emotions for sure.”

While it has not been a normal week (how many have there been in sports the last 18 months?), Chamberlin has tried to keep the same routine, with post-game awards after the inter-squad scrimmage, rest day Monday, and then practice Tuesday through Friday. 

For Chamberlin, the Flyers also must play more effectively against a team that has already played two games.

“We’re going to have to play a non-typical first game,” Chamberlin said. “Because in the first game, you make those mistakes, you have turnovers, penalties, that sort of thing. And then you work on that after your first game and get better (for) your second game. That’s what Eastern Illinois has already got to do. So we have to skip those first-game jitters and go right to the idea of executing better.”

Scouting Eastern Illinois

As they’ve already played two games, the Panthers bring into the game an expectation that is more concrete, instead of scouting a team that hasn’t played in 4-5 months (spring season), 9 months (fall 2020 season) or nearly two years (fall 2019 season). 

Suffering a close loss to Indiana State (26-21 Aug. 28) and a blow-out loss to South Carolina (46-0 Sept. 4) – though Easterling said, “The scoreboard did not reflect how good of a football team they are.” – Eastern Illinois will come into Saturday’s game hungry for a win. 

Although the Panthers have been outscored 72-21, the Flyers expect an athletic team to line-up against them on Saturday. 

“(They lost 46-0) but this team was making plays against (an) SEC school,” Easterling said. “Just watching the film, you can see their guys run. Big thing for us every single week is just executing, doing our job and just staying together and going fast.”

Targeted by two rotating quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Otto Kuhns and redshirt sophomore Chris Katrenick, the strength of the Panthers is their receivers according to Chamberlin. 

“Their strength is their wide receivers,” Chamberlin said. “No doubt, they’re rotating a couple quarterbacks… They each have different abilities, but their receivers can catch the ball.”

Averaging 6.6 yards per passing play through the first two games, the Panthers rely on several different receivers, led by redshirt senior Tyler Ringwood, who has five catches for 116 yards. Seven other receivers have at least two catches, but none of them (including Ringwood) have caught a touchdown pass this year. Kuhns and Katrenick combined stats: 27-50 (54 percent completion percentage) for 331 yards, 0 TD and 4 INTs.

Out of the backfield, where they average 2.5 yards per rush, the Panthers lean on freshmen Harrison Bey-Buie (16 carries, 69 yards and 1 TD) and Kendi Young (10 carries for 46 yards), and redshirt junior Markenzy Pierre (17 carries for 61 yards). Kuhns and redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Hamilton – who leads the team with 6 receptions for 47 yards – each have the team’s only other touchdowns this season.

On defense, freshman safety Jordan Vincent and sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson lead the team with 12 total tackles each (2.5 combined tackles for loss), and freshman safety Kaelin Drakeford, third on the team with 9 total tackles, has created the team’s only turnover, a forced fumble. Allowing 673 total yards, 5.2 per play, the offensive weapons the Flyers have will challenge the Panthers during Saturday’s game. 

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Welcome Stadium as Flyer football is played for real and in front of fans for the first time since Nov. 23, 2019. 

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