Eastern Michigan has come away from a Big Ten stadium with a win in each of the last two years, defeating Rutgers in 2017 and Purdue last season.
At the beginning of the 2019 season, EMU fans had to think the string could run to three, with Illinois on the schedule for Week 3. After all, Illinois has been near the bottom of the Big Ten in recent years. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith took over prior to the 2016 season, and the Illini were 9-27 (4-23 Big Ten) under Smith heading into this season.
But things are changing in Champaign with former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters at the control of the offense, leading the Illini to wins over Akron (42-3) and Connecticut (31-23).
The Eagles and Fighting Illini meet Saturday at noon on BTN.
“Offensively, it starts with the quarterback position and he’s thrown seven touchdowns and one interception,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said Monday about Peters. “They’re nearly 58 percent conversion ratio on third down. Being in the Midwest and following the Big Ten to some degree, watching the Akron game and then the UConn game, there’s an energy and confidence and excitement that I’m not necessarily surprised at all about. Their program, people have thrown stones but they look really, really good to me.”
EMU lost at Kentucky Saturday, 38-17, battling back from a 17-0 first-half deficit to pull within 31-17 in the fourth quarter, with Eagles senior quarterback Mike Glass throwing for 337 yards on 34-of-53 passing for two TDs.
Peters, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior, was rated the No. 6 pro style quarterback in the nation in 2016, signing with Michigan and having UM coach Jim Harbaugh comparing him to Andrew Luck.
Peters has completed 65.5 percent of his passes (38-of-58) this season for 390 yards, with seven TDs and an interception.
Peters connected on 24-of-35 passes for career highs in passing yards (227) and TDs (four) – two going to USC transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe – in the 31-23 win at Connecticut Saturday, giving Illinois its first road win over a non-conference team since 2007.
Peters had to help the Illini back from an early 13-0 deficit, throwing an interception that was returned 52 yards on the opening series.
But Peters showed his poise and leadership by rallying Illinois back for 24 unanswered points during the second quarter, throwing three TD passes.
Peters was never better than in that second quarter, when he hit on 12-of-13 passes for 164 yards, also running for 13 yards to the Connecticut 35 to set up a 53-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
“He’s a good quarterback, I liked watching him when he was at Michigan,” said EMU senior defensive back Brody Hoying of Peters. “From the film that we’ve seen on him so far, he’s more versatile than people give him credit for. He has a great arm, everyone knows that, but with Illinois and their spread offense and the RPO offense they have, he’s doing a really good job distributing the ball.
“He can run better than people give him credit for, so respect to him and good for Illinois for their start. They’ve been down in the past couple of years, so it’s good to see them doing well.”
The same can be said for the Eagles since EMU had 20 consecutive non-winning seasons until 2016.
Hoying said giving Peters “mixed looks” is the key for the Eagles defense.
“Make it difficult on him, because the way their offense works, they’re reading one or two players every play,” Hoying said. “So the more mixed up looks we can give them and get in their head and make it confusing for them, the better off we’ll be.”
Yes, Hoying was named MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week on Monday for getting in on nine tackles against Kentucky.
“The strength of our defense is everybody doing their job every play,” he said. “I think our secondary is great, I think our defensive line is great and our linebackers are great. It’s not one guy that stands out.”
Hoying can’t wait to get on the field at Illinois.
“Games like this is the ones you grow up as a kid wishing for, so getting ready for a game like this is not difficult at all,” Hoying said. “I could go play right now. So we’re excited.”
EMU vs. Illinois
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Records: EMU 1-1, Illinois 2-0
Line: Illinois by 8.5
CMU vs. Akron
Kickoff: 3 Saturday, Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mt. Pleasant
Records: CMU 1-1, Akron 0-2
Line: CMU by 4
WMU vs. Georgia State
Kickoff: 7 Saturday, Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo
Records: WMU 1-1, Georgia State 2-0
Line: WMU by 11.5