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Eastern Michigan has daunting task at No. 20 WMU

By Al Willman
Special to The Detroit News
Brogan Roback

Ypsilanti — While some Eastern Michigan students are taking their midterms this week, Saturday will be the biggest test of the season for the football team.

The Eagles (5-2, 2-1 Mid-American Conference), who are on the verge of bowl eligibility for only the second time in the last 21 years, are looking to make their first bowl appearance since 1987.

But first, EMU plays No. 20 Western Michigan in Kalamazoo on Saturday. The Broncos (7-0, 3-0 MAC) currently sit atop the MAC West standings, and are early 23 1/2-point favorites after moving up four spots in this week’s AP poll.

“Quite honestly, we don’t even care what anyone has to say about us,” EMU redshirt senior defensive lineman and team captain Pat O’Connor said. “It’s our locker room, it’s our coaching staff. It’s our inside corps that’s really pushing us forward.

"So people can point fingers and say whatever they want, it’s really not going to change our perspective, or game plan, or anything like that. So we’re going to keep it inside our locker room and our team room and just run with it.”

WMU has no shortage of offensive weapons. Quarterback Zach Terrell has a 70.1 completion percentage and has thrown for 1,597 yards and 17 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Receiver Corey Davis has 10 touchdowns for the Broncos, to go with 652 yards.

“In terms of those two guys, I think they’re both excellent, excellent players,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said. “Their quarterback play is sensational. I’ve felt that ever since I’ve been here. (Terrell) has such total command of their offense. He makes great decisions. He throws a very catchable ball, throws it on time. (He) keeps the ball in the run game, throws the ball when he should, protects himself. I really admire how he plays.”

“Corey Davis is not their only receiver. That’s part of what they’ve got going on right now. They’ve got great players all over the field. He can run. He runs great routes. He’s got great hands. You can tell he’s a competitor. Those two are definitely a dynamic duo, but it doesn’t end with those two.

Jarvion Franklin’s 795 rushing yards and six touchdowns, combined with Jamauri Bogan’s 539 yards and five scores leads a two-headed rushing attack that has run for 1,859 yards and 21 touchdowns.

And those are just the so-called “big name” players in Kalamazoo.

Receivers Michael Henry (33 catches, 368 yards, three touchdowns) and Carrington Thompson (18 catches, 287 yards, two touchdowns) are also threats in Western’s passing game.

As for Western’s defense, it holds opponents to just over 17.5 points a game, 130.6 yards on the ground and 207 in the air.

“In terms of Western Michigan, what I look at is (that) it won’t be good enough for us to play really well in two of three phases,” Creighton said. “It’s going to take a total team effort and for us to play well in all three phases, and to do so for four quarters.”

A similar comeback

Fourth-year WMU coach P.J. Fleck orchestrated a turnaround for the Broncos like Creighton is in the middle of now at Eastern.

In 2013, Fleck’s first season, Western went 1-11. The next two years, the Broncos went 8-5 and this year’s 7-0 start is the best for WMU since 1941.

Creighton’s EMU teams have gone backwards before this season. The Eagles went 2-10 in 2014 and 1-11 last season. This year’s start is the Eagles' best since 1995.

Eastern has won three straight road games for the first time since 1967 — back when it was the Hurons — a feat which was accomplished in Saturday's 27-20 win at Ohio.

“I don’t know that the situations are similar or different,” Creighton said. “I really don’t know. I’ve just gotten to know (Fleck) the last three years and you have to admire what he’s done in terms of taking (WMU) from a 1-11 team to what they’re doing now. There’s no question. They’re doing a great job.”

Roback named MAC West co-offensive player of the week

Continuing his impressive turnaround season, quarterback Brogan Roback was 29-of-39 for 347 yards and three touchdowns against Ohio. He threw no interceptions and was sacked only once.

For his efforts, Roback — who has thrown for 740 yards, seven touchdowns and only one interception in just four games — was named MAC West co-offensive player of the week.

Of Roback’s four games, only two are starts. He then only played two drives in the fourth quarter against Wyoming on Sept. 23, and played the second half against Bowling Green on Oct. 1.

“When you talk about him on the field, I mean, this is his senior year,” Creighton said. “He has a command of the offense. That wasn’t just this year. He’s football smart. (He’s) savvy and he’s been in it and been working with coach (offensive coordinator Kalen) DeBoer now for the third season. That’s really not been an issue for him. That’s been a strength.”

Roback’s previous struggles are well-documented. However, it certainly seems that the former four-star recruit has turned the corner this year.

“He’s got such confidence and can make such great plays, but in the last couple years, it’s come at a cost in terms of turning the ball over as well,” Creighton said. “So (we) really have tried to manage his competitive nature in terms of putting balls in there and believing (that) every throw he can make and making better decisions in terms of taking care of the ball.”

Eastern Michigan at Western Michigan

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo

TV / Radio: American Sports Network/ESPN3, WEMU 89.1 FM

Records: WMU is 7-0 and 3-0 in the Mid-American Conference. EMU is 5-2, 2-1.

Line: Western by 22 1/2

Notables: Eastern’s last win over Western Michigan in Kalamazoo was a 29-23 victory on Nov. 17, 2012. Immediately after the game, Bill Cubit was fired as Western’s coach. It was EMU’s second win of the year and first conference win. Alex Gillett had nine carries for 60 yards and five catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Al Willman is a freelance writer

Twitter: @AlWillmanSports