DEKALB (WCIA) — It’s a new era for the Eastern Illinois football program. Tonight, they kick off their season against Northern Illinois with new head coach Chris Wilkerson.

A new era officially starts tonight here in Dekalb for Eastern Illinois with Chris Wilkerson coaching his first game leading the Panthers program. He’s no stranger though, graduating from EIU and spending several years on staff as an assistant, but this is his biggest challenge yet.

Eastern is just 3-26 the past three seasons, only winning one game per year under Adam Cushing. He left and Wilkerson was brought in to put new life into a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017. Who will be quarterback is the big question for the Panthers. Wilkerson did not name a starter coming into the game, Colorado State transfer Jonah O’Brien took the field against the Huskies as QB1.

NIU, the defending MAC champs, came out hot with Huskies Harrison Waylee going on a 54-yard run to an NIU touchdown less than 5 minutes in.

Huskies Eric Rogers also with two interceptions tonight, both in the first half. EIU enters halftime down 21-6. The Panthers don’t give up. O’Brien throws to Jaelin Benefield for a 24 yard touchdown in the 3rd. O’Brien really finds his footing in the 4th quarter, throwing two touchdowns to only be one touchdown away from the Huskies. NIU ends up holding the Panthers off, winning the game 34-27.

“We’re definitely trying to prove people wrong, the whole season we’re going to put as underdogs, especially after last season because we know we have the talent and we’ve finally put it all together,” EIU sophomore linebacker Colin Bohanek said.

“We know this a marathon and the season is not going to be defined by the season opening game Thursday night but it’s certainly going to be the first step,” Chris Wilkerson said. “Strictly from the wins and losses standpoint, the program has not been where we would like to be and our goal is to restore it to that mantle if you will of one of the top 20 to 25 FCS teams in the country.”

EIU plays Chattanooga for their home opener on Saturday, September 10th.