Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
Eastern Michigan is one of maybe the two toughest jobs in college football. Yes, they have access to the Michigan talent, but so do the other two directional Michigan schools, as does the flagship school in the state, and every other member of the B1G Ten. The Eagles boast a humble 44% historical winning percentage, only claim a winning record against two teams (Wyoming and San Jose State) and have had ZERO All-Americans on their roster. In fact, before 2014, EMU had only been to one bowl game.
Insert Chris Creighton. Creighton got the job because he was basically one of the few who wanted it. He didn’t have an overwhelmingly amazing resume but he certainly had a lengthy resume, with plenty of success in smaller, midwestern schools. Chris Creighton proceeded to take the Eagles to three bowl games, accounting for 75% of EMU’s bowl appearances in all of history.
If you think Chris Creighton is one of the best coaches out there I wouldn’t fight you.
Creighton improved EMU in each of his first five years at the helm, which is incredibly difficult to do, and so regression was likely right around the corner. That corner’s name was “the 2019 season”.
Here’s what Eastern Michigan did in 2019:
The Eagles had one of the best offenses they’d ever seen but paired it with one of their worst defenses since 2014. They played in EIGHT one-possession games and only managed to go 4-4. They had two blowouts of over-matched Akron and NIU squads, but for the most part, win or lose, they at least kept the games close.
Head Coach: Chris Creighton - 6th Year - 28-47 (16-32)
Here’s one of my favorite tidbits about Coach Creighton: after earning his master’s degree in 1992, he left for Sweden to play quarterback for the Limhamn Griffins in...whatever the Swedish football league is called. Once he stepped off the plane a team staffer picked him up at the airport and said. “Oh hey, by the way, we’re going to need you to coach the team as well.”
The Griffins proceeded to win the Swedish football championship. Hell yeah.
Take a peek at Creighton’s resume: How many of you have heard of any of the schools he coached at before Drake? He stayed in the Midwest in D-II schools (or lower) and built up programs to respectability, winning championships as well as multiple “Coach of the Year” awards.
I really like what Creighton’s done so far in Ypsilanti. He inherited a program with no identity or history and got super creative. He nicknamed their program “The Factory” and installed gray turf in the stadium, giving it an industrial look and attitude that makes it feel like you’re watching football from the 1950s. The coaching staff wears mechanic-esque shirts on the sidelines with their names stitched over the left pocket to capture the blue-collar, workmanlike culture, and during home games, the staff stacks up a bunch of cinder blocks that the team knocks down with sledgehammers as they take the field. Awesome.
Creighton might not have had the FBS chops, but he had a ton of experience in programs that were out-gunned by their competition so he was a perfect fit for EMU.
Neal Neathery - Defensive Coordinator: Neathery has worked with Creighton at every stop . They won championships together at Drake, Wabash, and Ottawa. He knows what Creighton wants and has done a good job of building up the defense. Even with the collapse last year, Creighton has shown confidence in his lieutenant and has given him enough leash to fix last year’s problems with a new crop of guys for 2020.
Jay Nunez - Special Teams Coordinator
Mike Piatkowski - Quarterbacks
Sam Sewell - Running Backs
Darren Paige - Wide Receivers
Brandon Blaney - Tight Ends
James Patton - Offensive Line
Ben Needham - Defensive Line
LaMarcus Hicks - Cornerbacks
Fred Reed - Safeties
The 2019 offense was really good at one specific strategy: throw a series of quick passes to slowly matriculate down the field, convert third-downs reliably, and then walk away with at least three points once they get inside the 30. It’s not fancy, but they were really freaking good at it; 27th in overall passing SP+, 11th (!) in success rate, 16th (!!) in efficiency, 10th (!!!) in completion percentage...98th in explosiveness. Thanks to a 92nd ranked rushing attack, the Eagles had to use the passing game as an extension of the run and continue to gain the minimum yardage needed - and only the minimum, mind you - until they didn’t. The strategy netted the Eagles their best offensive ranking under Creighton (63rd) and stacked up well against whatever defense they faced:
EMU Offense Success Rates against SP+ Ranked defenses:
- 1-25: 45% (0-1 record)
- 26-50: 30.8% (0-2 record)
- 51-75: 40.1% (1-1 record)
- 75-100: 49.3% (1-1 record)
- 100+: 51.4% (3-2 record)
Aside from Buffalo holding them to a dreadful 10% success rate, EMU was fairly consistent regardless of opponent.
However, the Eagles lost just about everybody. Hazelwood Central product and ref-punching aficionado, Mike Glass III, a two-year starter at quarterback, graduated; 3-year starting running back Shaq Vann is gone, as is his backup Breck Turner; and 3 of the top 5 receivers are gone as well. That gives the Eagles 40% of 2019’s production returning for 2020, and very little of it is from the passing game (which needs a lot of experience to be good). Not only do they lose all that experience, but 2019’s offensive coordinator, Aaron Keen, returned to his alma mater of WashU to be head coach and Creighton decided to take over play-calling duties himself. All of that newness certainly bodes well for Missouri, so who can they expect to be facing off against on September 26th?
Quarterback - Preston Hutchinson - Junior
Hutchinson only came in at the end of games or to give Glass a breather but, when he was in, he was a more accurate/more sack-prone version of the starter. In the small sample size he had he was far worse at providing a threat on the ground but completed over 75% of his passes (Glass was at 66%).
Because of his experience Hutch is the presumed starter over two seniors and two underclassmen. It is possible - and probably hoped - that incoming freshman Christopher Kaminski wins the job but that’s incredibly unlikely. What Hutchinson can do with brand new running backs and only two receivers from last year’s crop will determine how well this offense moves.
Running Back - Willie Parker - Senior
The Eagles managed to run for 1,679 yards in 2019. 497 of that was Mike Glass, a quarterback. The aforementioned departed Shaq Vann gained 715 yards, three wide receivers had 189 yards and probably-new-starting-quarterback Hutchinson added 34. That means that returning EMU running backs had 142 yards last year.
Those yards belong to senior Willie Parker who, over the past three years, has had 99 carries for 406 yards. Even for a career backup that’s not a lot and now he’s been thrust into the starting position as the most tenured back in the rotation.
Creighton redshirted Darius Boone, Jr. and Trey Bess in 2019 to stagger the classes out and save some talent for a leaner year such as this one. But even with a year in the program it’s tough to assume that the new talent will take immediately. And given how terrible the Eagles were at running the ball last year with all of these guys still on the roster, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll improve substantially in just one year.
Wide Receiver - Dylan Drummond - Junior
I cited the receiving stats in the overview but I want to dive a little further here.
In 2019, the Eagles had nine players catch more the ten passes. Of those nine, only one had a catch rate less than 65% (Matthew Sexton at 64.2%). As a comparison, Mizzou had eleven guys catch more than ten passes and only FOUR had a catch rate greater than 65%.
Passing games are a lot more effective when you catch the ball, huh?
Again, only two of the top five pass catchers return in 2020 but they were the first- and third-most targeted receivers. Drummond had 82 targets to his name but was basically a slot weapon, gaining only 9 yards per catch with a 50% success rate. The other returning part of this duo was Quian Williams, who had an incredible 85% catch rate paired with a 72% success rate at 12 yards per catch. Both were utilized effectively last year as complements to a deep receiving corps but will need some other targets to step up to avoid getting doubled on their routes this year. The top two tight ends return as well but they combined for less than 100 yards in 2019. This will be a good test for the Tiger secondary in hopes that they erase Drummond and Williams and force some younger guys make plays.
The strength of EMU over the past two years had been its defense, a unit that found itself ranked in the SP+ Top 60 in both 2017 and 2018. That strength collapsed, however, in 2019, just as the Eagle offense got good and now DC Neal Neathery had to replace his four best players.
The Eagle defense was good at limiting explosive plays and downright great in passing down situations. That tended to not matter, however, as they were too busy giving up 3/4/5 yards on first down and letting opposing offense off the hook.
It’s hard to see a huge bounce back - it’s really hard to lose top contributors on defense and just magically improve - but they have some talented pass rushers and at least one super good safety to build on. Still, returning only 49% of last year’s production is going to mean that there will be a lot of growing pains.
Defensive Line - Turan Rush - Senior
Rush wasn’t the most disruptive player in the world (8 havoc plays on the year) but when he made an impact he made it count: 8.5 run stuffs and 5 sacks paired with a pass broken up and a forced fumble is definitely noticeable.
He’ll be paired with Mikey Haney at end who was even less disruptive but good in run support. Both have experience and should be able to provide a little more havoc than last year. They’d better, anyway, since the linebacking corps is getting a facelift and the defensive tackles provided very little in the disruption department.
Linebacker - Terry Myrick - Senior
With 63.5 tackles, Myrick is the Eagles’ best returning tackler, but also lead the entire defense last year with 7.5 tackles for loss. EMU played a super tight linebacker rotation last year with only four guys getting any experience. Fellow senior Brandon Burks is the favorite to earn the starting spot next to Myrick, but only logged 15 tackles - and zero havoc plays - for the entire 2019 campaign. If a freshman were to step up here that would be a good sign for a defense that will be hungry for playmakers.
Defensive Back - Blake Bogan - Junior
Three of the starting five defensive backs are gone from the 2019 squad leaving Blake Bogan and Harry-Potter-Minor-Character Noski LaFleur (editor’s note: that’s hilarious) manning the safety spots. Both were pretty great, mind you, combining for 58 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles. The starting corners, however, will be a huge question mark. Mighty-mite Freddie McGee was tenacious in pass defense despite being only 5’8”, breaking up 4 passes despite being shorter and lighter than his counterparts. Jerodd Vines and Korey Hernandez played minor roles for the 2019 squad but will have to provide a lot more to keep the Eagles’ secondary at the same strength that it was last year.
So what does it mean?
Eastern Michigan returns the 7th worst amount of production from last year: 44% overall, 40% of their offense and 49% of their defense. It’s hard to improve and reliably beat teams when the guys playing didn’t have much experience in the previous year.
Then again, there was a team that Missouri played last year that only returned 48% of their overall production, 46% of their offense and 49% of their defense. That team was Wyoming.
The Eagles will be starting nearly completely over in the area they were best at (passing offense) while retooling a defense that was much worse than the previous iterations. They’ll open up with unstoppable juggernaut Kentucky on the road, then host Coastal Carolina and Northern Illinois before they head to Columbia. That means they’ll have a better idea of what they can do with the new toys they have to play with. It also means that they could very well be coming in with three straight losses.
Chris Creighton is a damn good coach, capable of turning around one of the worst programs in the sport and get them to bowl games. But this is the type of game the Tigers expect to win. Especially in the first year of a new coaching regime, the best way to keep the wind in the sails is to beat the teams you are expected to beat, which EMU definitely qualifies as.
At this point, Missouri should also know what it has on offense and should be able to pick on some newer corners and exploit the gaps in the interior of the front-seven spine. Missouri wins this one 9 out of 10 times. Let’s hope it’s one of those nine.