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EMU can be a MAC dark horse, if 2017’s bad breaks become 2018’s good bounces

Chris Creighton has made the Eagles competitive. Now it’s time to take the next step forward.

Eastern Michigan v Miami Ohio Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Over the course of 12 MAC season previews each year, I feel like I say the word “parity” approximately 864 times. Geographically and financially, this is one of the more homogenous conferences in FBS. Perhaps more than any other conference, the MAC is designed for mobility. A little improvement — a particularly good hire, a particularly good quarterback — can take you a long way. So can a little regression.

That opens the door for luck to play a pretty massive role. If you’re around the middle of the MAC in talent and potential, you’re going to play in a lot of close games, and, well, someone has to lose those.

In 2017, EMU fielded maybe its best team in 30 years. Following the Eagles’ 2016 breakthrough — they managed their first winning season in 21 years and their first postseason bid in 29 — Creighton’s squad took a step backwards on defense but offset that with about three steps forward on defense. They rose from 102nd to 44th in Def. S&P+, allowing just 23 points per game and pulling off some of the best big-play prevention in the conference.

Overall, their scoring margin went from minus-3 points in 2016 to plus-33. Against a schedule that featured two power-conference foes and seven bowl-eligible opponents, the Eagles played in nine games decided by one possession. And in a six-game span in the middle of the season, they lost six of them in a row.

Six losses to mostly strong teams by a total of 22 points. It became a morbid running joke — how’s EMU going to lose this week?

  • They lost in double OT to a very good Ohio.
  • They out-gained Kentucky by 84 yards in Lexington but threw two late INTs in UK territory and fell by four.
  • In an upset bid at eventual MAC champ Toledo, they missed an early field goal and threw another late INT in UT territory in a 20-15 loss.
  • Down 28-21 at the best Army team in 20 years, they trailed 28-21 when Brogan Roback and Sergio Bailey connected for a TD with 49 seconds left. Not wanting to fall in OT again, EMU went for two. Didn’t get it.
  • Back at home against WMU, they indeed went to OT again. And lost on a missed 24-yard FG.
  • At NIU, they went up 24-10 early in the fourth quarter but gave up two touchdowns and missed a field goal at the buzzer. Another OT, another loss.

Five of these six games featured bad turnovers luck, too. That’s gut-wrenching.

After a 42-30 loss to CMU officially eliminated them from bowl contention, they proceeded to win their last two games of the year by three points each to finish 5-7.

Eastern Michigan v Rutgers
Chris Creighton
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Now’s a very good time for EMU football to have gotten its act together. The school just cut four sports, including wrestling, because of perpetual budgetary concerns. That football forever has the best revenue potential saved Creighton’s team from cuts despite the fact that “they’ve had like one good year.” The last two seasons have given EMU a taste of what could happen in football. The program has earned a lifeline of sorts, but it won’t last forever.

Hard jobs tend to remain hard, and two competitive years isn’t enough to change the day-to-day difficulty in Ypsilanti. But the longer Creighton can sustain, the more fans will notice, and the more recruits will notice*.

EMU returns basically every running back and offensive lineman and nearly every defensive back. The Eagles will again be able to rush the passer, and the run game should rebound after an injury-plagued 2017. But they have to replace Brogan Roback and his 8,653 career passing yards, and the receiving corps takes a hit as well. The defense should be sturdy again, but can the offense make the plays it couldn’t a year ago? I’m not going to say the future of the program might depend on it, but saying that wouldn’t be completely untrue either.

* Actually, the latter is already somewhat happening. Per the 247Sports Composite, EMU’s 2018 signing class ranked sixth in the conference, their best finish on record.

Offense

2017 EMU offensive radar

Hope began to spring up for EMU back in 2015. The Eagles went 1-11 but were competitive at LSU and CMU, and they had a legitimately exciting ground game. Senior Darius Jackson rushed for 1,000 yards, but a freshman named Shaq Vann provided a major spark; his 129 yards at Wyoming paved the way for the Eagles’ only win of the year.

In 2016, he rushed for 156 yards in the season opener but got hurt and missed the rest of the season. Ian Eriksen did a good job of falling forward and avoiding negative plays, but EMU fell from 48th to 111th in Rushing S&P+ in Vann’s absence.

Vann returned in 2017, so all was well, right? Not so much. He missed three games (all during the losing streak) and came into November averaging only 3.5 yards per carry. Eriksen had averaged only 4.1. EMU had maybe the worst ground game in the country to date.

That changed in November, though. In wins over Ball State, Miami, and Bowling Green, Vann and Eriksen averaged 33 carries per game and 5.7 yards per carry. Vann had 117 yards against BGSU, and Eriksen had 100-plus in all three games. And with just a little bit of help from the run game, Roback thrived, producing a 172.5 passer rating in these three games (the rest of the season: 119.6).

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Army
Ian Eriksen
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Roback and four of last year’s top five receivers are gone. That tends to portend regression. But EMU’s success in 2017, when there was success, grew from the ground game up. Eriksen and Vann are both back for their senior campaigns, and every lineman — including five seniors with a combined 70 career starts — return as well. Coordinator Aaron Keen wants to lean on the run game if he can, and there’s a chance he can.

You’ll still have to pass occasionally, though. Three-star sophomore Isaac Stiebeling got some action in the season finale but completed just eight of 16 passes for 49 yards. He’ll have to hold off Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers, a 6’4 former high-three-star recruit who got lost in the shuffle, first behind C.J. Beathard, then behind Nate Stanley. In parts of three seasons, he threw just six passes. But he’s got size and a decent arm.

Then there’s the next issue: receivers. Sergio Bailey II and Antoine Porter led the way with 100 catches for 1,326 yards and 13 touchdowns, and two other departed receivers caught 20-plus passes each. Only one returning wideout caught more than 10 passes last year: 5’11 junior Mathew Sexton.

Sexton was probably the most efficient member of the receiving corps last year, but he’ll need help, so Creighton loaded up on JUCOs: receivers Michael Thompson and Arthur Jackson III and big tight end Thomas Odukoya. At least one of them will need to become immediate contributors, maybe two. And if one of them can’t stretch the field a bit, I’m not sure who on the roster can.

The running backs can serve as safety valves. Eriksen, Vann, and Blake Banham combined for 49 targets, 39 catches, and 275 yards in 2017. Between the backs, Sexton, and slot men Eddie Daugherty and Isaac Holder, the possession game should be decent. But big plays are still a necessity and a total unknown.

Eastern Michigan v Rutgers
Mathew Sexton
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Defense

2017 EMU defensive radar

Neal Neathery has made a world of difference for Creighton and EMU. The former UTSA coordinator took over EMU’s defense in 2016 after the Eagles had ranked last in FBS in Def. S&P+ the year before. His first unit improved to 102nd, his second to 44th.

EMU allowed its lowest point total (280) since 1993 last fall, limiting big plays, waiting for opponents to fall behind schedule, and then attacking. They were 31st in Passing Downs S&P+ and 23rd in Adj. Sack Rate, and a lot of the primary reasons for those rankings return.

It starts up front. Ends Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris have combined for 43.5 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks over the last two year, and Crosby was one of just 14 FBS defenders to have double-digit sacks (11) in 2017. They get after you, and they have the size — they’re each 6’5 and at least 255 pounds — to stand up against the run reasonably well; in fact, they led the team by each taking part in at least nine run stuffs. Middle linebacker Kyle Rachwal was third on the team with eight, and he’s back as well.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois
Jeremiah Harris
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary appears well-manned as well. Neathery works out of a 4-2-5 structure, which means you better defend the pass well, and EMU was decent in that regard. They allowed a 62 percent completion rate over the final 10 games of the season, but opponents averaged under 12 yards per completion. You could dink and dunk, but if you got aggressive and looked downfield, you either threw an incompletion or got sacked.

Juniors Brody Hoying and Vince Calhoun lead the way in the back. Calhoun roamed the back, and Hoying was the team’s third-best play-maker after Crosby and Harris, combining four TFLs, four passes defensed, and four forced fumbles.

Free safety Juan Giraldo is gone, but the return of Ikie Calderon from injury should mitigate that issue. Calderon was a major role player in 2016, and EMU’s best two pass-defending games of 2017 (sans Army, which went 0-for-5 passing but is Army) came in the first two weeks, before he got hurt.

Eastern Michigan v Rutgers
Brody Hoying
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The run defense does take a hit worth noting, though. Rachwal returns, as do senior tackles Kwanii Figueroa and Tyler LaBarbera, but that’s pretty much it at those positions. Creighton signed three JUCO linemen (two tackles) and two JUCO linebackers to alleviate potential issues there, but EMU could be just a couple of injuries away from serious depth problems.

Special Teams

Place-kicker Paulie Fricano had a strange year. His two late missed field goals against WMU and NIU were incredibly costly, and his early miss against Toledo might have changed the complexion of that game as well.

Those three kicks aside, however, he went 15-for-18 overall. He was a steadying presence for an offense that needed one, even if he blinked late against two conference rivals. He’s back, as are punter Jake Julien and most of the components of a decent, but not great, return game. Kickoffs were extremely problematic last year, though, and we’ll see if that changes.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Monmouth NR 18.0 85%
8-Sep at Purdue 54 -11.8 25%
15-Sep at Buffalo 93 -3.2 43%
22-Sep at San Diego State 55 -11.2 26%
29-Sep Northern Illinois 69 -3.6 42%
6-Oct at Western Michigan 87 -4.9 39%
13-Oct Toledo 49 -7.6 33%
20-Oct at Ball State 117 3.3 58%
27-Oct Army 92 1.6 54%
3-Nov Central Michigan 116 8.2 68%
10-Nov Akron 119 9.0 70%
23-Nov at Kent State 127 6.7 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 96
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 121 / 46
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -13.6 (125)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 121 / 123
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 0.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (42%, 85%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.4 (-1.4)

The turnover in the passing game is disconcerting. If EMU regresses and fields its worst team since 2015, it will probably be because of regression there. S&P+ projects the Eagles’ offense to rank just 121st overall, offsetting the effects of what should be another strong defense.

Even with a bad offense, though, EMU will once again be playing in a ton of close games. S&P+ projects them to play in seven games decided by a touchdown or less, with three pretty likely wins (Monmouth, Akron, and CMU at home) and two likely losses (at Purdue and San Diego State).

Will fate smile on the Eagles a bit more in 2018? If so, it could make them a dark horse MAC West contender. They do get CMU, Toledo, and NIU at home, after all, and a run could go a long way toward both justifying the football program’s existence in the face of budget issues and helping to alleviate some of those issues.

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