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December 12, 2013

Marshall's Duncan, North's Weatherford help EIU playoff run

CHARLESTON, Ill. — In Dino Babers’ world there is no pretty good. There is only good and everything else.

“Don’t even use the PG word,” the high-energy head coach at Eastern Illinois said. He laughed, but he wasn’t joking.

The second-seeded Panthers (12-1, 8-0 Ohio Valley) are very good. They’re getting ready to play today in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals against seventh-seeded Towson (11-2, 6-2 Colonial Athletic). EIU’s only loss was by four points on the road at Northern Illinois (12-1). And in Jimmy Garoppolo the Panthers have a quarterback who has rewritten EIU and Ohio Valley Conference record books on his way to a likely job in the NFL.

When Babers arrived from Baylor to take over a team that had just gone 2-9, he asked the players a lot of questions.

“You could tell from their answers they were more concerned about individual stats than team goals,” Babers said.

Since then, there has been no shortage of stats at EIU. The team leads the OVC in six major offensive categories. Babers said he had to convince players to worry more about wins and losses than anything else.

There were results in 2012 — a conference title, a playoff spot and a 7-5 finish. This fall season was even better.

The Panthers — whose roster also includes running back Taylor Duncan of Marshall and punter Scott Weatherford of Terre Haute North — opened at San Diego State, and beat a now bowl-bound FBS team.  That game was the first time Babers’ mom, Patsy Ann Plummer, saw him work as a head coach in person.

“It’s the only time I asked the team for anything,” Babers said. “The day before the game I said it would be really cool if my mom, the first game she saw me as a head coach, she saw me win.”

And so she did, 40-19.

It started a string of dominant final scores: 57-24, 63-7, 52-14, 70-22.

Even the 43-39 loss to NIU four games into the season now feels a little like a win. Before the Huskies lost last week to Bowling Green, no one outside of Iowa had come as close to beating them.

It’s remarkable, Babers said, how focused the team has remained. There hasn’t even been much of a close call, a week when the Panthers looked past an opponent.

“Look at what we do every week — where’s the letdown? Tell me where the letdown was,” he said.

Garoppolo isn’t the only reason EIU is where it is, but he’s a big part of it.

Playing at the school where both Tony Romo and Sean Payton were quarterbacks, the senior from Arlington Heights, Ill., has set school records for everything from touchdown passes in a season (51, 17 more than No. 2 on the list, Romo in 2002) to yards passing (4,729).

The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Garoppolo has been sacked 16 times while dropping back to pass on 518 plays. That’s one sack for every 32.4 pass plays.

The line gets some of the credit, the coach said, but the quarterback does, too.

Outside of former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, “he’s got the fastest release I’ve seen in coaching 29 years of football.”

The NFL has taken notice. The school says all 32 pro teams have been on campus to take a look this fall. Talent guru Gil Brandt puts him in the second tier of college quarterbacks who will be available in the 2014 draft, comparable to Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.

How does a player like that wind up at EIU?

“Evaluation mistakes — a lot of them,” Babers said bluntly. “It’s a blessing for us.”

With a win EIU would move on to the semifinals, putting it one victory away from the national title game on Jan. 4 in Frisco, Texas.

The success has made Babers a coach whose name comes up for other jobs.

“People are going to look at me, that’s great,” Babers said. “But I haven’t taken any job and I’m going to be here for the duration. I’ve never played on a national championship football team.”

 

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