Canton, Ohio – Eastern Michigan earned its first winning season since 1995 last season and the passing combination of quarterback Brogan Roback and receiver Sergio Bailey II return to try to help the Eagles win their first bowl game and Mid-American Conference title since 1987.
Roback, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound senior, threw for 2,694 yards and 18 touchdowns last season while getting intercepted seven times, four fewer than the previous season, to lead the Eagles to a 7-6 record and Bahamas Bowl appearance, a loss to Old Dominion.
Bailey had 60 receptions for 868 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It’s culture changing,” Roback said at Wednesday's MAC Media Day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame where the Eagles were picked to finish fourth in the West. “Every class had the same thing to say, ‘We want to be the class to change it. We want to be the class to change it,’ and for it to finally happen was surreal, but we fell short at the end.
“We were 7-6 when you think about it and that’s not great at a lot of places, but for us it was a great starting spot so we’re looking forward to getting back. We have some unfinished business. We want to go back to a bowl game again, but we want to win it.”
Roback has developed into one of the premier quarterbacks in the conference, possibly second only to Toledo’s Logan Woodside, who threw for 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns last season.
“What he is right now is the leader of our football team,” Eastern Michigan fourth-year coach Chris Creighton said of Roback. “The amount of votes he got for captain was really strong. He’s always been talented, but I think what you’re going to see now is a maturing, talented quarterback who has become a leader and that’s a pretty good recipe.
“We have six of our top seven receivers, all of our running backs and we’ll have a senior tight end, so the weapons will be there. We have two starters back on the offensive line and we have some experienced guys who are older and ready to step in there.”
Roback is excited with his role as captain.
“I’d say leadership is where I feel like I’ve grown the most,” said Roback, who completed 58.9 percent of his passes in 10 games after missing the first three games due to a suspension. “I’ve been through a lot of tough times early on and just being able to be voted captain by my peers was a big deal to me because they obviously trusted me and I think just growing in that aspect and being there for them and putting the trust in their hands that I’m the guy they can look to and go with at the end of games.
“I feel like I can make a lot of throws all over the field, just my ability with my arm. I feel like I can make almost every throw and that’s probably where my game can take off. Where I need to work on is just the pocket presence and trusting the offensive line up front, feeling the pressure, not with my eyes, and keeping my eyes down the field and when you put those things together we can make some magic.”
Roback was never better than in a 27-20 win over MAC East champion Ohio, completing 29 of 39 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Bailey had eight receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in the victory.
“We have the whole skilled group back, Shaq Vann back, our starting running back who broke his shoulder early on, and Sergio is sneaky good. When people try to get in front of him, they can’t,” Roback said. “Johnnie Niupalau is another guy who is dominant in the red zone, and then you have Antoine Porter in the slot who is an awesome receiver.
“Then, you have Dieuly Aristilde who I like to call my little project. I treat him like my little brother and he might not like that sometimes. The talent for him is through the roof. He was only a freshman last year, just played half the year and he excites me.”
Aristilde, a 6-4, 210-pound sophomore, had 24 receptions for 472 yards over the final five games.
Creighton is optimistic the Eagles will get back to a bowl game.
“We talk about it a lot that ultimately we failed on our goal last year to get the win in the bowl game,” Creighton said. “There were things to celebrate last year, but ultimately we failed. At some point in January our guys became really hungry again and our seniors led us in this and just said we need to go and win a bowl game, that’s what’s going to make us for real and that’s what our theme is for this year.”
EASTERN MICHIGAN 2017 SCHEDULE
Sept. 1, Charlotte, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 9, at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 23, Ohio, TBD
Sept. 30, at Kentucky, TBD
Oct. 7, at Toledo, TBD
Oct. 14, at Army, Noon
Oct. 21, Western Michigan, 2 p.m.
Oct. 26, at Nothern Illinois, 7 p.m.
Nov. 2, Ball State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 8, at Central Michigan, TBD
Nov. 15, at Miami (Ohio), TBD
Nov. 21, Bowling Green, 7 p.m.