Getting to Know Your Bowl Opponent: Eastern Michigan

Early this past week, the Sun Belt Conference announced that the winner of the Sun Belt Championship game would go to the New Orleans Bowl, while the loser would go to the Cure Bowl in Orlando. Ever since that point, it was pretty clear where Georgia Southern would end up: the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Sun Belt Conference has only five bowl tie-ins: New Orleans, Cure, Dollar General, Arizona, and the Camellia. New Orleans and Cure are now officially the top two, so we knew App State and Louisiana would end up going to those. Dollar General in Mobile (oldest bowl, highest payout) is third best, a natural destination for Troy. We knew a team from the West Division would end up in Arizona, and they did (Arkansas State). Which left the Camellia Bowl to Georgia Southern.
I for one had no real preference. After the past two seasons, if they sent us to Alaska, I would be happy. This is Georgia Southern’s 2nd ever bowl appearance, first since 2015. It just feels good to go bowling again.
Ever since it became known that it would be Montgomery, speculation was rampant about who the opponent would be. Some said it would be the loser of the MAC Championship game (which turned out to be Buffalo), several media members predicted Ohio, turns out we were all wrong. The Eagles will face the Eagles from Eastern Michigan on December 15th.

Who is Eastern Michigan?

Eastern Michigan University is located in Ypsilanti, Michigan, six miles east of Ann Arbor, 18 miles west of Detroit. Their football program played its first game in 1891 and have fielded a team every year since except for 1944. Their most notable contributions to football history are Pro Football Hall of Famer George Allen, former Lions, and Steelers QB Charlie Batch, and 2X Pro Bowl Tackle TJ Lang. This is their 4th bowl appearance, 2nd in three years, they are 1-2 all-time.
It’s hard to build a winner in any environment, at Eastern Michigan, it’s darn near impossible. EMU is eternally in the shadow of their next-door neighbor Michigan Wolverines. Imagine if Statesboro was six miles outside of Athens, we’d never see the light of day. Five years ago they were the laughingstock of the MAC. The Eagles hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1987. Averaging less than 5,000 fans per home game, rumors swirled that they would shutter the program.
With this as background, Eastern Michigan’s turn around under Head Coach Chris Creighton has been remarkable. Coming over from Drake in 2014, Creighton’s first two seasons in Ypsilanti were rough, going 3-21. But in 2017, he turned it around, leading EMU to a 7-6 record and a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. It was their first above-.500 finish since 1995. Since that season attendance has started to rebound. They are 19-18 in their past three seasons. That’s EMU’s best stretch of football since the John Harkema era from 1986-89.
Even with their resurgence under Chris Creighton doubts remain about the longevity of the program. In March of this year, they decided to cut softball, men’s swimming and diving, wrestling and women’s tennis due to steep budget shortfalls. In spite of the odds, Creighton keeps fielding competitive teams.

EMU’s 2018 season

vs. Monmouth 51-17  W
@ Purdue 20-19 W
@ Buffalo 28-35 L
@ San Diego State 20-23 L
vs. Northern Illinois 23-26 L
@ Western Michigan 24-27 L
vs. Toledo 28-26 W
@ Ball State 42-20 W
vs. Army 22-37 L
vs. Central Michigan 17-7 W
vs. Akron 27-7 W
@ Kent State 28-20 W
Eastern Michigan finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the MAC. The two highlights of EMU’s 2018 campaign is their win over Purdue in September and winning 5 of their last six games. The Eagles also took San Diego State into OT on the road. They were steady and consistent, never really getting blown out in any of their games. The opponent they had the most trouble against was Army in late October, losing 37-22. This is a double-edged sword for Georgia Southern. One one hand it shows that they struggled against an option offense, on the other they have experience playing against it. EMU is hot coming into this matchup. Here are highlights from that Army game:

Points/G: 27.5 (76th of 130)
Total Offense: 370.2 ypg (89th of 130)
Opp Pts/G: 22.0 (32nd of 130)
Total Defense: 352.9 ypg (34th of 130)
Rushing Defense: 194.5 (89th of 130)
For a more comprehensive statistical overview of Eastern Michigan, go here. The EMU Eagles’ bread and butter is their defense. Their base is a 4-3, and they have talent on all three levels. They are excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback, led by 1st team all-MAC DE Maxx Crosby who has 18 TFLs and 7.5 sacks on the season. LB Kyle Rachwal is a tackling machine at MLB. Their pair of safeties Vince Calhoun and Brody Hoying wreck havoc all over the field. They are 7th in the country in Red Zone Defense and 5th in Opp Pass Yards/Game. However, if they have a weakness, it is their run defense, 89th in yards per game and 68th in yards per play.
On offense, they aren’t flashy. EMU has two QBs with contrasting styles: pocket passer Tyler Wiegers and dual-threat Mike Glass III. Glass III is a bit banged up with an injury to his right leg, he’s listed as questionable for the Camellia Bowl. They are middle of the pack in most offensive categories except two: completion percentage (37th) and interceptions thrown % (8th). They don’t make many mistakes on offense. If they are going to beat you, it will probably be through the air. Blake Banham, Arthur Jackson III, and Matthew Sexton are their top three receivers. They also take care of the ball, 10th in turnover margin at +10.
Key Players
QB-Tyler Wiegers, 1,887 yards, 11 TDs, 3 INTs, 64.8 Comp %, 136.3 Rtg
QB-Mike Glass III, 820 yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT, 59.8 Comp %, 154 Rtg
RB-Shaq Vann, 590 yards, 5 TDs, 4.4 Avg
WR-Blake Banham, 54 Rec, 714 yards, 6 TDs
LB-Kyle Rachwal, 115 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 2 INTs
DB-Vince Calhoun, 77 tackles, 3 INTs
DL-Maxx Crosby, 62 tackles, 18 TFLs, 7.5 sacks
DB-Brody Hoying, 68 tackles, 11 TFLs
LB-Jaylen Pickett, 72 tackles, 8 TFLs
My take is this will be a low scoring, blue-collar affair between two well-coached football teams. EMU is an excellent defensive team that doesn’t beat themselves with turnovers. They mirror Georgia Southern in that regard. There’s a reason nearly all of EMU’s games this season were one-score affairs. However, their run defense was their one weakness on that side of the ball, and that plays into Southern’s hands. I’m sure that the unofficial Sun Belt Coach of the Year Chad Lunsford (still complete nonsense that the Sun Belt chose Satterfield over him) will dissect that Army tape thoroughly. If the Blue Eagles can play the way they have all season, they should be able to take care of the green Eagles December 15th.

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