CHARLESTON - It's been just over two months since the latest edition of the oldest college football rivalry in Illinois.
Yet both Illinois State and Eastern Illinois will be relying on key players in Saturday's 1 p.m. NCAA Division I Football Championship playoff game who did not see action in ISU's 44-30 victory on Sept. 16 in Normal.
The 8-4 Panthers have switched from Mike Donato to Cole Stinson at quarterback.
Stinson, who has started from the sixth game on, has completed 107 of 194 passes for 1,270 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
"Cole has given our offense the ability to be more diverse," Eastern wide receiver Micah Rucker said. "I think when we were playing some of the early games, teams were able to scout us and know we were going to run on first down. Since Cole has been in the game, we have been able to break up our routine, and we now can throw on any down or situation."
ISU coach Denver Johnson believes the quarterback change has helped the Panthers.
"I think the quarterback they have gone to has made them better," Johnson said. "I don't know if it's his play or his leadership ability, but I think they are a better offensive football team now. And the change at quarterback has contributed to that in a large way."
The Redbirds played without a standout performer on both sides of the ball in the first Eastern game. Wide receiver Laurent Robinson and linebacker Kye Stewart sat out with ankle injuries.
Robinson has 28 receptions for 574 yards in an injury-plagued season. Stewart has 115 tackles in 10 games and ranks second on the ISU tackle chart.
"Kye didn't play the first game against us. He adds some maturity," Eastern assistant head coach Mark Hutson said. "Their linebackers are the best group I've seen on film, and they're the best group we've played."
Saturday's game will be the 95th in the all-time series. ISU holds a 48-37-9 advantage.
Eastern apparently took exception to ISU's final touchdown in the September meeting. Redbird tailback Rafael Rice ran 24 yards for a touchdown with 35 seconds left for the final margin.
"It's not how you end a game," Eastern offensive tackle and Central Catholic High School graduate Eric Johnson said. "I'm sure it's going to be on our defense's mind."
Senior safety Tristan Burge, sidelined late in the game at ISU, considered the late score an insult.
"That was a slap in the face," Burge said. "It was kind of embarrassing for them to go in and score another touchdown to make it look bad. It made me sick to my stomach."
Rucker and Panthers' defensive tackle Tim Kelly do not feel quite as strongly.
"I know some of the guys have been talking about that, but I think they are talking more about just losing the game," Rucker said. "We had our chances to win that game."
"Everybody says it was a cheap shot," said Kelly. "It is what it is. It was a touchdown. We called a blitz and they just gashed us."
Denver Johnson said back in September he was trying to protect quarterback Luke Drone from the Eastern rush while attempting to run out the clock.