It’s bowl or bust as EMU finally takes off
Ypsilanti – Eastern Michigan has positioned itself to earn its first bowl bid in a generation, since 1987, when it won the Mid-American Conference championship and defeated San Jose State in the California Bowl.
The Eagles are 4-1, and it has been a long time since the Eagles have played a meaningful game. But they will do so on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Rynearson Stadium against perennial MAC West power Toledo.
Toledo has won the last nine games in the rivalry – and by an average of 39 points the last three years. But this is a far different team for the Eagles, who say their goal this season is to make it back to a bowl game.
“Our goal is crystal clear, to go to and win a bowl game this year,” said third-year EMU coach Chris Creighton.
There’s a sign above the EMU team meeting room that reads: “Tough Times Don’t Last. Tough People Do.” The Eagles are confident that those tough times are over. This is their best start since 1995, when they also went 4-1. That was also EMU’s last winning season (6-5).
The Eagles are coming off a 28-25 win over defending MAC champion Bowling Green. They have also beaten Mississippi Valley State, Charlotte and Wyoming, with the one loss to Missouri.
“Anybody who loves Eastern Michigan and who has an opportunity to be here Saturday and doesn’t come will miss out because this team is playing their tails off,” Creighton said. “There’s some juice and momentum and buzz around campus and Ypsilanti. We hope that there’s a big crowd.”
Creighton, who came to Ypsilanti in 2014 after six seasons as Drake’s head coach, went 2-10 his first year at EMU and 1-11 last year. Even before the season, Creighton believed the Eagles had a chance for a big turnaround.
“We have some injured players back from last year,” said Creighton of standout defensive ends Patrick O’Connor and Jeremiah Harris; they were out last season.
Creighton also said he switched to an even-front 4-2-5 defense, which he used with success at Drake, and Wabash before that. Creighton was 42-22 at Drake and 63-15 seven seasons at Wabash.
“We’ve played that style (of defense) at Drake and Wabash and our defensive coordinator (Neal Neathery) has done a great job,” Creighton said. “It was a smooth transition since we’ve been together for 14 years, been together now at every place I’ve coached.”
Eastern Michigan’s defense was one of the worst in college football last year, allowing 528.9 yards, including an average of 316.5 on the ground.
This season, the Eagles have allowed an average of 127 yards rushing, 3.4 yards per carry, ranking No. 38 in the nation, third-best in the MAC.
“We had Jeremiah for just a game and a half and we had Pat for zero plays and they are two really good football players,” said Creighton of having Harris and O’Connor back on the field. “We now have more depth and we’re rotating guys in and out, so the added depth is so important.”
Toledo will be a huge test for that improved Eagles defense. The Rockets piled up 692 yards last week in a 55-53 loss at BYU. The Rockets gained 611 yards against EMU last year in a 63-20 rout.
“It feels great to be out playing again, out with the whole defensive line and putting us in position to win games,” said O’Connor. “Our biggest goal as a defense is to stop the run, and seeing teams try to run the ball over and over again is amusing to us, so we take it as a challenge.”
Creighton and his staff are also getting players from Metro Detroit, including sophomore running back Ian Eriksen of Clarkston, who took over the running back job in Week 2 after Shaq Vann suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
“Shaq got hurt on the fourth play of the Missouri game and Ian finished that game and really played well and hasn’t looked back,” Creighton said. “He’s just a tough, aggressive, physical, violent running back and that’s who we are as a team.
“We’ll still spread teams out, but it starts with our inside running game on offense and toughness is absolutely what we’re about. You have to stop the run and you have to be able to run it.”
Eriksen, who helped Clarkston win the Division 1 state championship, has 387 yards and five TDs, averaging 4.3 yards a carry.
“Ian has stepped up big with the loss of Shaq, who is a great back,” said quarterback Brogan Roback, who has come off the bench the last two weeks to rally the Eagles to comeback victories. “He runs super hard. People might label him as a crazy guy when he’s on the field, but that’s just his demeanor. He wants to be the hardest-hitting guy on the field.”
Roback, a redshirt junior, was a four-star recruit out of Toledo St. John’s Jesuit. He is proud of the Eagles’ start.
“Every class that comes in says, ‘We want to be the class that changes it,’ and now we’ve got the ball rolling, but we don’t play five games in a season so we haven’t done much yet, haven’t done everything that we want to do,” said Roback. “I think our team has a lot of confidence, but we still have a lot to work on. It’s all about getting better every day.”
EMU vs. Toledo
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Rynearson Stadium, Ypsilanti
Location: Rynearson Stadium is on Hewitt Road between North Huron River Drive and Washtenaw Avenue.
Tickets: Adults $15 in advance or $20 on game day; children 12-under are $8. EMU students admitted free with student ID. For more information go to emueagles.com or call (734) 487-2282.
Records: EMU 4-1, 1-0 MAC; Toledo 3-1, 0-0
Radio: WEMU 89.1 FM