Eastern Illinois won the 111th Mid-American Classic at O’Brien Field on Saturday afternoon.

The Panthers won the game against the 25th ranked Illinois State Redbirds by a score of 14-13.

In addition to winning the Central American Cup Classic for the first time since 2016, the Panthers also beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 2017.

“We are very excited to bring the Central American Cup Classic back to Charleston,” said coach Chris Wilkerson.

Head coach Chris Wilkerson holds the Mid-American Classic Trophy after defeating the Illinois State University Redbirds 14-13 at O’Brien Field on Saturday. (Rob Le Kates)

In the second quarter, the Panthers were the first team to get on the board.

Alumni wide receiver Justin Thomas scored the first touchdown. Redshirt senior quarterback Pierce found Holly Thomas open at the 15-yard line. Thomas caught the ball and ran into the end zone to score six points for the Panthers.

Illinois State found its momentum when the team scored in the third quarter. Redshirt sophomore Wenkers Wight ran three yards for the Redbirds’ first points of the game.

With about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, junior running back Mason Blackmore ran for a 12-yard touchdown to give the Redbirds another touchdown.

However, the extra point was not good as the ball hit the right post.

With 75 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Panthers marched across the field with dominating plays.

Holley started the play with a pass to freshman running back MJ Flowers. Flowers ran six yards to the Panthers’ 13-yard line.

On the next drive, redshirt junior tight end Anthony Manaves got the Panthers going first by catching a pass from Holley.

Junior wide receiver Eli Mirza ran for 13 yards after catching a pass from Holly to give the Panthers another first down.

Holly targeted Flowers again for a seven-yard gain.

On the next play, Holly targeted Thomas again, but the play resulted in an incomplete pass, a pass interference penalty and a scoring penalty on Redbird junior defensive backs C.J. Hodgdon and Nigel White.

Penalties resulted in a 15-yard gain for East as they moved to the ISU 43-yard line.

He targeted Holly Mirza for a seven-yard gain to keep the momentum going for the Panthers.

On the next play, Holley threw the ball to Flowers for 11 yards for another first down.

Holley punted the ball on the next play to stop the clock and give the offense more time to figure out what to do on the next play.

Graduates wide receiver Justin Thomas runs into the end zone to score the first touchdown of the game during the Mid-America Classic game against the Redbirds at O’Brien Field on Saturday. Thomas scored twice and ran for 80 yards. The Panthers won 14-13. (Rob Le Kates)

On second down, Holley threw a 25-yard pass to Thomas.

Thomas caught it in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day to tie the game for the Redbirds.

“(The team) trusted me when they needed me, and I couldn’t be more thankful,” Thomas said.

Redshirt sophomore kicker Julian Patino kicked the extra point and put the Panthers ahead with 60 seconds left.

After his second touchdown, Thomas wasn’t thinking about the previous play at all.

“I was just thinking: ‘Defense, you’ve got 30 seconds,'” Thomas said. “Stop. “Any point.”

On the third play of the Redbirds’ drive, Redbirds senior quarterback Zach Annekstad threw an interception to Panthers sophomore Blake Ruffin to seal the win for the Panthers.

Members of the football team post the Mid-America Classic Trophy after defeating the Illinois State University Redbirds 14-13 at O’Brien Field on Saturday. (Rob Le Kates)

“I was thinking, ‘Hold on to the ball,'” Ruffin said when he stopped the Redbirds’ drive.

Ruffin led the Panthers with nine tackles.

Eastern’s defense recorded three interceptions from junior defensive back Mark Aitken and fifth-year defensive backs Russell Dundee and Ruffin.

“This win feels surreal,” Holley said. Holley finished the game 35 of 48 for 273 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Holley completed his first 20 passes of the game and broke the school record previously held by Sean Payton in 1986.

Thomas spoke about what this win means to him, and it wasn’t just about the trophy.

“This was a ‘flip the script’ game,” Thomas said.

The Panthers are currently 2-1. Eastern will play next Saturday against McNeese at O’Brien Field. The match is scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m

Zaria Flippin can be reached at 581-2812 or (email protected).

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