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EMU vs. Old Dominion preview: Going bowling again

David Goricki
The Detroit News

David Goricki of The Detroit News breaks down Friday’s Bahamas Bowl (1 p.m., ESPN) between Eastern Michigan (7-5) and Old Dominion (9-3).

Old Dominion: Players to watch

David Washington, QB, Sr.

Washington competed at receiver during Old Dominion’s first season in FBS in 2014 before moving back to QB last season. This season he has elevated his game while protecting the football, throwing for 2,648 yards and 28 TDs with four interceptions. He threw for 416 yards and five TDs in a 42-24 win over Florida Atlantic Nov. 19.

Ray Lawry, RB, Jr.

Lawry is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, piling up 1,122 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 6.3 yards a carry this season. He rushed for 194 yards and three TDs in a 42-28 win over Florida International in the regular season finale. He personally spoiled EMU’s season opener in ’15 when he rushed for 223 yards and four TDs, his final one coming on a 45-yard run with 1:57 left for the difference in a 38-34 win.

Zach Pascal, WR, Sr.

Pascal, 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, is Washington’s primary receiver, grabbing 63 passes for 893 yards and eight TDs to earn second-team All-Conference USA honors for the second straight season. He averaged 14.2 yards a catch, hauling in eight passes for 104 yards and two TDs in a loss to North Carolina State.

Maturing Roback helped Eagles take flight

EMU: Players to watch

Brogan Roback, QB, Jr.

Roback has thrown for 2,394 yards and 16 TDs (six INTs) with 2,001 yards and 12 TDs coming in the last six games. He rallied the Eagles from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit by throwing for 468 yards and three TDs in a 48-41 comeback win over Ball State on Election Night.

Sergio Bailey, WR, Jr.

Bailey has been Roback’s go-to receiver during the last half of the season, a big reason the Eagles are playing in their first bowl game since 1987. He has 29 receptions for 470 yards and four TDs in the last six games, including a 16-yard TD reception to give the Eagles a 33-28 lead over Ball State and a 24-yard TD reception with 21 seconds left for the difference in a 26-21 win over Central Michigan in the regular season finale.

Pat O’Connor, DE, Sr.

After sitting out last season because of a shoulder injury, O’Connor returned to cause havoc and help the Eagles defense improve dramatically to earn their first winning season since 1995. He had 12 1/2 tackles for loss, eight sacks and forced five fumbles to earn first-team All-MAC honors.

Facts and figures

* EMU earned its first winning season since 1995 and its first bowl appearance since 1987 — its lone bowl game, 30-27 California Bowl victory over San Jose State — getting off to a 5-2 start, then winning two of its final three games. The Eagles tied the FBS mark for the biggest turnaround in ’16, going from 1-11 to 7-5, matching Wyoming (2-10 to 8-5) and Central Florida (0-12 to 6-6).

* The Eagles were one of the worst defensive teams in the nation last year, giving up an average of 42 points and 528.9 yards, including 316.8 rushing yards and 44 rushing TDs while losing their final 10 games. This season, EMU has limited opponents to 30.3 points, 435.9 yards and 164.3 rushing yards. They gave up 1,972 yards, 4.3 yards a carry compared to 1,884 yards (6.9 yards per carry) in first five games alone in ’15.

* The Eagles forced 23 turnovers, third-best in the MAC behind conference champion Western Michigan (26) and Kent State (24). They have recovered 13 fumbles while intercepting 10 passes.

* Old Dominion is an impressive story, a FBS full-time program for just its second season. The Monarchs didn’t even have a football program until Bobby Wilder came on board in 2009. He built a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) power by 2012 and it moved up to FBS in 2014, competing in Conference USA.

* The Monarchs’ defense forced 22 turnovers for a plus-13 in margin to rank No. 4, behind Washington, Western Michigan and Ohio State. Old Dominion’s offense has been pretty special, turning the ball over just nine times, including five fumbles.

Predictions

Tony Paul: Eastern Michigan might be one of the best stories in college football this season, going from the country’s doormat — amid calls over the summer to shut down the program, or move it to Division II — to bowl-eligible in just one year. And it wasn’t just a product of an easy schedule. The Eagles, after all, were a rare team to give Western Michigan a good game this season. This is just Eastern’s second bowl game ever, and it will improve to 2-0. EMU, 21-13

Al Willman: Eastern Michigan has come a long way in Chris Creighton’s three years as coach. Expect a 300-plus yard performance from Brogan Roback, who has no shortage of receiving threats. Clarkston native Ian Eriksen will have a good day, too, but good luck stopping Ray Lawry, who has, in two games, rushed for 292 yards — 255 of them last season — against the Eagles. Old Dominion, 35-27