Maturing Roback helped Eagles take flight

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Brogan Roback has matured as a quarterback during the last half of his junior year to lead Eastern Michigan to its first winning season since 1995 and its first bowl appearance in 29 years.

EMU will be making just its second bowl appearance ever Friday when it plays Old Dominion in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.

No doubt, the reward is a great one for the Eagles, who are escaping the sub-freezing temperatures in southeastern Michigan for the warmth of the Bahamas and the first-class resort of Atlantis.

Roback, who was suspended for the first couple of games, made sure he would take advantage of his second chance, throwing for 2,001 yards and 12 TDs during the final six games of the season to help the Eagles end decades of losing.

Roback showed heart and poise in comeback wins during that six-game stretch, rallying the Eagles from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit on Election Night by throwing for 468 yards and three TDs in a 48-41 win over Ball State, a game in which he threw 71 passes.

Then, in the regular-season finale Roback completed 26-of-37 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns, the latter coming on a 24-yard pass to Sergio Bailey on a fade pattern with 21 seconds left for the difference in a 26-21 victory over Central Michigan.

EMU vs. Old Dominion preview: Going bowling again

“He’s always had a good arm, but his accuracy, his touch and those things have improved,” EMU third-year coach Chris Creighton said. “He understands the game more now, he’s more composed and he’s making good decisions.”

Creighton’s words were never more backed up than when Roback directed the Eagles on the winning, 72-yard drive against Central Michigan, finding Dieuly Aristilde for a 30-yard pass to start the drive, then finding Aristilde again on a fourth-and-6 play at CMU’s 33 for 9 yards to keep the drive alive.

“There was a series of great plays by him on that drive, the 30-yard completion on the sideline to Dieuly, the fourth-and-6 slant to Dieuly, and then the beautiful ball to Sergio for the touchdown, just really well done,” Creighton said.

“He’s confident right now. He’s got four fifth-year seniors on the offensive line out in front of him and these guys have got some good chemistry going right now.”

Roback came in under former Eagles head coach Ron English as EMU’s first four-star recruit. Now, he has lived up to that hype and is proud that he helped give the fans a winning season.

“Words really can’t put it together and I’ve been trying to search for words, but I feel truly blessed and humbled to be in this situation,” Roback said. “It’s an awesome experience, a rollercoaster ride I don’t want to get off of yet. I’m just excited for everyone that’s involved. It’s a great experience and I’m glad that we could finally do that.”

When asked to talk of his recent run, the 2,001 yards in six games, Roback replied: “I just think our defense is playing out of their mind, getting us the ball in good situations a lot of the times.

“Coach (offensive coordinator Kalen) DeBoer has a good plan. We really grind it out during the week, watch film and put game plans together that work out. I feel the offensive line, the receivers and running backs all help me out in that area.

“Really, just the understanding of the offense and preparation is big, and really just taking what they give me because things have been there before in the past and I’ve tried to … Coach Creighton says all the time ‘You can’t get a 14-point touchdown, just take it as they come.’ I’ve settled into that and let the game come to me and I’ve been comfortable doing that.”

And, what does Roback think about playing Old Dominion, a 9-3 team from Conference USA that defeated the Eagles each of the last two seasons, and has forced 22 turnovers for a plus-13 rating, fourth-best in the nation?

“They are a completely different team than the one we played last year and we’re talking in a good way,” Roback said. “They are athletic, big, have playmakers, had 34 sacks so they like to get after it so it’s a good challenge. Our offensive line has been playing outstanding all year so it’s a good test for them. They have a great offense, too, so we need to make sure we’re taking care of our business.”

Twitter: @DavidGoricki