Week two has arrived and it’s time for some more MACtion. One of the biggest laughingstock programs in college football has turned into a tough, consistent winner under Chris Creighton with a propensity to pull Power Five upsets. Kentucky must avoid the look ahead spot with Florida on deck.
Nuts and Bolts
Chris Creighton enters year six at EMU and it has been quite the rebuilding project. After going 3-21 in his first two seasons, the Eagles finally turned the corner in 2016. In the three-plus years since, EMU is 20-19 with two bowl appearances and a couple of Power Five wins. A program that had been to one bowl game all-time has now gone twice in the last three seasons. Per S&P+, Eastern Michigan has improved every season since the Kenyon College alum took over. The former NAIA, Division III, and FCS head coach might the pound-for-pound best head coach in college football.
EMU joined the MAC in 1972 and has been an FBS member ever since. In the early 1980s, the Eagles had a 27-game losing streak and after reaching the California Bowl in 1987, they went three decades without making it to the postseason. The three coaches before Chris Creighton went a combined 36-156 proving that this is one of the hardest jobs in college football.
This is a program with a specific culture. Nine of the projected starters are junior college transfers with many more coming off the bench. It’s a team with not much athleticism at the skill positions and a fair share of undersized players on the line. The Eagles win with smarts, tenacity, and maximum effort. They are as blue collar as blue collar gets and their social media team is not afraid to let you know.
— Eastern Michigan Football (@EMUFB) August 31, 2019
Yes, Eastern Michigan’s coaching staff is wearing mechanic shirts with their initials and nicknames on them. They own that “work harder than anybody else” identity.
This will be the second ever meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning a 1-0 series lead. In the previous meeting, UK squeaked out a 24-20 win in 2017. In that game, EMU had more first downs and total yards on top of limiting Benny Snell to just 75 yards on 21 carries.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 15-point favorite with a total 0f 53. That’s a projected final score of 34-19. Since 2016, EMU is 27-11-1 against the spread and 19-3-2 as a dog with nine upset wins. In that time, Kentucky is 18-22 against the spread and 3-14 as a favorite with three upset losses.
Aaron Keen is in his second year calling the plays and he’s been a part of the EMU staff since Chris Creighton took over. Last year, EMU scored 27 points per game (81st nationally) and averaged 5.5 yards per play (84th). Recently, the ground game has struggled and this has been an offense that needs passing production. However, junior college transfer Mike Glass III gives the offense a different element.
The Southwestern College (CA) product platooned with Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers last season before taking over the full-time starting job by the end of the season. During his career, he’s put up some really solid numbers. Counting the start this season, Glass is completing 66.2 percent of his passes, with an 8.7 yards per attempt average, 12 passing touchdowns and just one interception. He’s known for his athleticism, but he’s been extremely good in the passing department.
Glass will use his legs to help the offense move the chains. Last season, the dual-threat quarterback averaged 7.5 yards per carry on non-sack attempts and scored six touchdowns. He will scramble for some yards, but EMU will also call his number on some designed runs. That pop is needed because the Eagles have struggled at traditionally running the football.
Shaq Vann (No. 5) is the top option in the backfield and the senior rushed for 590 yards last season. In the opening win, Vann put up 108 yards but only 4.9 yards per carry. This is a group that just doesn’t get much from the running back spot and that makes the play of the wideouts very critical.
At receiver, EMU returned 27 starts from last season with three seniors ready to make a big impact. However, it looks like a sophomore could be the biggest playmaker on the offense.
No sophomore slump here, more like sophomore surge for Dylan Drummond (@Dylan_Drummond9)
— Eastern Michigan Football (@EMUFB) September 2, 2019
Dylan Drummond (No. 80) had 25 grabs last season, but collected five catches and two touchdowns in the season opening win. He may have the most athleticism in the position room and could be a tough cover. On the outside, there are three seniors who have played a lot of football.
Arthur Jackson III (No. 89) and Line Latu (No. 8) are guys Mike Glass III will be leaning on heavily. Jackson was the squad’s leading receiver returning from last season (46 grabs, 592 yards, five touchdowns, 70.8 percent catch rate). Matthew Sexton (No. 2) may be the most inefficient, but he can give the offense a big play pop.
It is a small group with no one being over six-foot tall or above 195 pounds. They will rely on their quickness and experience to get open. The passing game prefers to dink-and-dunk down the field so expect screens, rubs, and crossing routes.
In the trenches, the Eagles are breaking in three new starters, but this is a group that is very strong on the left side. Steven Nielsen hails from Denmark and has developed into an All-MAC level performer. He is moving over after playing right tackle. Next to him is Canadian Sidy Sow who is sliding inside after starting 11 games at left tackle last season.
EMU is a bend-but-don’t-break unit that has turned into one of the MAC’s best defenses the last two seasons after being a laughingstock for most of the decade. Defensive coordinator Neal Neathery has been calling the defense since 2016 and employs a 4-2-5 scheme that relies heavily on the secondary.
EMU brought back 96 starts before the season started and this group is by far the best position group on the team. Behind three seniors who will each get a fair shot at the NFL, they will provide UK with one of the stiffest challenges they’ll see from an opposing secondary.
At the Rover position, Vince Calhoun has been starting since his freshman season and last year he recorded 84 tackles, four pass break-ups, and three interceptions on his way to third team All-MAC honors. The 5-foot-11, 203-pound safety makes a ton of plays at the second and third levels of the defense. In the box, they have another senior who makes a big impact.
Brody Hoying is from the small town of Coldwater, Ohio and the 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior plays EMU’s “Dog” position. This is essentially the nickelback and the defense asks for him to do a lot. He’s needed to defend the run, blitz, cover in man, and occasionally drop into a zone. Hoying delivers the much needed production from this position.
Last year he had 69 tackles, nine run stuffs and three pass break-ups. In his career, Hoying has collected 17 tackles for loss, five pass break-ups, five forced fumbles, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. He’s a ballhawk and if good things are happening for EMU, Hoying is likely right in the middle of it.
Similar to many modern defenses, EMU has a field and boundary corner with typically the best cover guy assigned to the boundary. Kevin McGill has started 31 games and was a preseason first team All-MAC selection after earning second team honors. The Maryland native was a two-star recruit out of high school, but he’ll have a great shot at hearing his name called in the NFL Draft.
Kevin McGill led the MAC in A LOT of coverage stats, including passer rating allowed. pic.twitter.com/MoPupl6MOf
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 26, 2019
The senior had three interceptions and six pass break-ups last season and recorded another interception in the season opening win. Ballplayer.
In the front seven, EMU had to replace a lot of last year’s defense that finished 52nd overall in S&P+. The most notable absence will be a guy who wreaked havoc against UK in the last meeting. Maxx Crosby left for the NFL early and would become a fourth round of the Oakland Raiders. The Texas native recorded 20 sacks in his college career and was a big part of the defense that ransacked Kentucky’s offensive line for 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2017.
EMU had just six returning starts on the line of scrimmage entering the year and are leaning heavily on multiple junior college transfers. Big things are expected from senior defensive end Turan Rush (N0. 99), but it was newcomer Woo Scott (No. 98) who led the group with tackles in his first FBS game at nose.
The line wasn’t the only spot with big holes after EMU lost both starting inside linebackers last season. Kyle Rachwal and Jaylen Pickett combined for 2o8 tackles, 24.5 run stuffs, five pass break-ups, four sacks, four forced fumbles, and three interceptions in 2018. The front took on the blocks while Rachwal and Pickett cleaned up the trash.
At Mike, Kobie Beltram steps in (No. 10) after playing as a reserve. The junior college transfer led the team with 12 tackles last week. Terry Myrick (No. 32) takes over at Will and he also recorded double-digit tackles against Coastal Carolina. However, neither has provided the havoc that their predecessors brought and that means a lower success rate for the defense.
Special Teams Breakdown
EMU ranked an ugly 109th in S&P+’s special teams rankings last season thanks mostly to a pretty dire field goal situation. Chad Ryland returns for his sophomore season after hitting 60 percent of his 20 attempts. He was perfect on PATs and had range out to 50 yards, but was woefully inconsistent. Jake Julien returns at punter after averaging a respectful 43.4 yards per attempt, but return yards are there for the taking. The return game is a huge question.
Chad Ryland made a short field goal last week and seems to be a very solid kickoff specialist. Jake Julien averaged a solid 48-plus yard per punt in the win. The Eagles are off to a hot start in the third phase.
Keys to Victory
After a sluggish start, UK rode a strong second half to take care of a pesky Toledo squad last week. Now they have another MAC West opponent on deck.
- Third downs were awful to UK’s offense last week and it prevented the Wildcats from having a monster scoring day. Going up against a bend-but-don’t-break defense, UK must be better on this down because the big plays likely won’t be there.
- Eastern Michigan is a dink-and-dunk offense that wants to stay ahead of the chains. There is not much big play pop in this offense and they can be in trouble whenever they are behind the chains. Mike Glass III had a very high sack rate last season (8.6 percent) so big plays could be there for the defense on third and long.
- The biggest surprise last week brought was the ineffectiveness Kentucky had when trying to run the ball in between the tackles. There were some bad quarterback reads and backs running at the wrong angles. Facing a rebuilt front, that should not be an issue this week. Running behind Drake Jackson and Logan Stenberg should be a strength so look for Kentucky to try to be more efficient after a week to fix that issue.
The Swamp, Death Valley, The Big House, The Shoe, Between the Hedges are all some great stadium nicknames, but the one for Rynearson Stadium may have them all beat.
Back in 2014, EMU gave its stadium the nickname “The Factory” to begin the Chris Creighton era. In this new regime, the Eagles hoped to become tougher than nails and that is embodied in their “E Tough” mentality. In the winter of 2014, the gray field idea was came up with by Creighton to let people know EMU to step up and challenge anyone anywhere.
This is a program built on blue collar toughness and it all stems from their head coach. I mean, he does kind of have the best beard in college football.
— Chris Creighton (@Coach_Creighton) August 28, 2019