Eastern Michigan encounters Georgia Southern on fast track to success

By Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News
Georgia Southern’s backfield presents “a whole different type of speed than we’ve seen all year,” said Eagles lineman Maxx Crosby, right.

Speed kills.

And Eastern Michigan’s opponent at the Camellia Bowl on Saturday in Montgomery, Alabama, has a lot of it.

Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack led by sophomore quarterback Shai Werts stands in the way of Eastern Michigan’s pursuit of its first bowl victory since 1987, a test welcomed by the heartbeat of Eastern Michigan’s defense, junior defensive end Maxx Crosby.

“I love playing against the highest of competition, and a guy like [Werts] is going to be really exciting to go toe-to-toe with,” Crosby told The Detroit News via phone Thursday.

“They have three, four guys that can run the ball all well, and that’s going to be a challenge.”

More: From walk-on to captain, EMU's Blake Banham perseveres

To be more precise, Georgia Southern has five ballcarriers who have eclipsed 300 yards rushing this season. Running back Wesley Fields leads the ground attack with 959 yards; Werts is second with 829; junior back Monteo Garrett has 408.

“In the backfield in general, I just feel like they have a whole different type of speed than we’ve seen all year,” Crosby said. “They’re a bit undersized, just like the quarterback, but they have really good speed and quickness, and they bring that toughness to the field.”

Saturday’s game is Eastern Michigan’s second bowl appearance in three years, and just its third appearance since a 30-27 win over San Jose State in the California Bowl — its only bowl victory in school history — more than three decades ago.

Since 1990, Eastern Michigan had just two winning seasons entering this year, including a 7-6 record in 2016 when it fell to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl.

As a senior leader of a team who’s recently smashed a remarkable trend of irrelevance, linebacker Jaylen Pickett is confident that his team’s ability to match Georgia Southern is not to be discounted.

Pickett, Crosby and dynamic linebacker Kyle Rachwal have consistently displayed an ability to close on tackles in the open field, combining for 36 1/2 tackles-for-loss this season.

“Everyone in their backfield is a good athlete, but I feel like we can match up with them on the edge,” Pickett said. “We have speed, just like they do.”

Not only does Eastern Michigan have speed, but it also has a point of reference to what it’s up against.

Pickett said Georgia Southern’s offense is “very similar” to Army’s, which defeated Eastern Michigan with its triple option, 37-22, on Oct. 27.

“They have a couple plays where they have the quarterback running out, and he can pitch it or he can keep it, and they also have a dodge for their fullback.”

While the look is comparable, Georgia Southern’s point of attack is a bit of a “change-up,” Crosby said.

“They run the option out of the shotgun and pistol,” Crosby said. “They have really good athletes and they’re going to play on the edges a lot more, and it’s going to hit a lot faster than Army.”

Even so, the Eastern Michigan defense has found its groove since the October defeat to Army. The unit has allowed just one touchdown in its final three games — a result, Crosby said, of the rising “trust” between players like him and Rachwall.

“We’re really close off the field and on the field, we’re always on the same page,” Crosby said.

“That really helps us perform at a high level. I trust him, and he trusts me, so that just allows us to play faster.”

If Eastern Michigan can pull out its eighth victory of the season on Saturday, it’ll finish with more wins than the program had in its 2012-15 seasons combined.

That’s a substantial turnaround for any team, but for one that’s never had a history of sustained success, achieving 20 total victories in the three seasons that followed would be a landmark run.

And considering that completing this year's masterpiece will require a stroke of speed, perhaps the least surprising thing of all is that it would have happened so quickly.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

Camellia Bowl


Kickoff: 5:30 Saturday, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

TV/radio: ESPN/89.1

Records: Eastern Michigan 7-5; Georgia Southern 9-3

Line: PK