Eastern Michigan was sitting pretty going into this season.
It was 7-6 including a Bahamas Bowl loss in 2016, helping to erase some of the 3-21 sting in coach Chris Creighton’s first two seasons. Quarterback Brogan Roback and runners Shaq Vann and Ian Eriksen returned, as did receivers Sergio Bailey, Antoine Porter and Johnnie Niupalau.
Things looked bright, and there even was a win at Rutgers, a big deal for the program, in getting away 2-0.
Then came a big splat, and, to me, a horrid stretch that erased a lot of euphoria and momentum from 2016. And it could have some repercussions down the line.
Six losses in a row. Seven in eight games. A little bit of spark at the end but still a 5-7 record. The Eagles lost those seven games by a total of 35 points. To be fair, the defense did its part, allowing 23.3 points a game as end Maxx Crosby had 11 sacks and Brody Hoying had two interceptions and four fumble recoveries in the secondary.
Some of the faithful moaned about bad luck, being oh so close, if only, except for, but what if ... and on and on. OK, maybe twice you can give EMU the benefit of the doubt for bad luck. Seven times? No way.
The Eagles were in all the losses in the fourth quarter. But they faltered ... in the waning minutes, in blowing a lead, in hanging in until the last play before getting nosed out and in overtime.
To me, that’s not executing in the clutch. Seven times doesn’t look like bad karma; how about poor play, a pattern? No excuses.
Creighton, to his credit, has said more than once after games it’s on him the team wasn’t ready. Hats off; that’s tough to do.
Three of EMU’s victories came over some of the worst teams in America — Charlotte (1-11), Ball State (2-10; Eastern won, 56-14, beating a No. 4 quarterback) and Bowling Green (2-10). Rutgers (4-8) and Miami of Ohio (5-7) were other wins, and credits to everyone, for sure.
Creighton is 15-34 in four seasons (8-24 in the Mid-American Conference, where he’s perennially behind Toledo, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Western Michigan in the West Division). A 6-6 or better 2017 might have landed EMU in another bowl, helping recruiting and bringing back-to-back seasons of achievement. Something to keep the program moving the chains. Now, what does he have to pitch?
Eastern lived through the air (3,093 yards throwing, 1,560 rushing) in 2017. Leaving are Roback (2,895 yards and 19 touchdowns), Bailey (54 catches for 878 and nine TDs), Porter (46 for 553, four TDs) and Niupalau (27 for 368, four TDs).
From whom will those numbers come now? Whoever is at quarterback won’t have much experience, and his receiver group will have lost its top three. Thankfully, Vann (520, three TDs) and Eriksen (810, eight TDs) will be back.
Next year’s nonconference schedule includes trips to Purdue and San Diego State, with a home game against Army. No cupcakes in that trio.
Creighton is under contract through 2022, when he will earn $500,000, The Detroit News’ Tony Paul reported July 6.
My view of Creighton: He strikes me as a terribly sincere, well-meaning guy — one with rock-solid principles — who would be great molding young men and instilling character. You hear he’s changed the losing culture/mindset. Good. I’ve heard him say he loves his guys and have no doubt he does.
But I still think back to when Creighton signed on in December 2013. Why would anyone take or even want the EMU job?
“We’re going to be E-tough (and then he got summarily flogged for two seasons),” he said. “We’ll play anyone, any time, anywhere ... we’ll play in a parking lot ... I’ve looked into their (the players’) eyes. They want to be champions.”
Now, how does that look?
Creighton is not one to duck a challenge. If anyone can clean up the mess left by Ron English and his other two predecessors, it’s Creighton. I hope he succeeds. He will have earned it.
However, the enormity of what he’s trying to do, a veritable resurrection — made all that tougher now because of this season’s surprising belly flop, setting things back — starts me wondering. How long will 2016 continue to save him if there are two or three more seasons under .500 coming?
I’m pulling for him, but somehow I just have a bad feeling about the whole thing. Maybe it’s from watching too much EMU football, all too often seeing great expectations crash and burn.
Art Brooks is a retired Detroit News sports copy editor and a volunteer adviser at The Eastern Echo, EMU’s student newspaper.