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Eastern Michigan-Michigan Preview: Washtenaw County History Converges

It's a cliché to write that EMU and Michigan, despite being just seven miles apart -- among FBS teams, only Rice and Houston are closer -- exist in different worlds, but there's usually a reason for clichés: they're true.

The University of Michigan, founded in Detroit as the "Catholepistemiad", or "University of Michigania", about 20 years before the Michigan Territory officially became a state, is a prestigious academic institution widely considered a "public ivy". Eastern Michigan University, was founded 32 years later as a normal school (Michigan State Normal School, to be precise), which is how most MAC schools got their start.

Among normal schools, EMU has a long and rich tradition, but it's nothing to rival the University of Michigan. Likewise in sports. Michigan was one of the earliest western schools to field a football team, starting play in 1879, just 10 years after Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game. In the 1880s they were consistently competing with then-elite programs like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton, in 1887 Michigan introduced football to the University of Notre Dame, and by the time James Swift brought "scientific football" to Ypsilanti in 1891, the sport was well-established in Ann Arbor.

The teams have played nine times to date, in three series, and the Wolverines have won all nine games. The first three games were played in 1896, 1897, and 1898. Each game was the season opener for the Wolverines, played in Ann Arbor at Regents Field, and Michigan won all three, by a combined score of 63-0.

In 1930, the newly-nicknamed Hurons were riding high, having posting a 34-3-2 record over the past five years, including four conference championships, 28 shutout games (including 20 in three years from 1925 through 1927), and undefeated seasons in 1925 and 1927. Michigan opened their 1930 season with a home doubleheader (really!) at Michigan Stadium.

In the first game, the Michigan second-string players beat Denison College 33-0, and in the second game the first-stringers beat Michigan State Normal 7-0, easily EMU’s best showing in the series. According to a United Press account of the game, the Hurons "outplayed the Wolves in two quarters, held them even in another, and broke just long enough in the third period to allow Michigan to flash through two forward passes and a lateral pass for a touchdown." Michigan’s sole touchdown in the Michigan State Normal game was scored by Charles DeBaker, a "fast-running halfback from Muskegon." Michigan went on to an 8-0-1 record and the Big Ten co-championship, while the Hurons won their remaining six games by a combined 145-7 score, taking their fourth consecutive conference championship and fifth in six years. In 1931, Michigan broke form by hosting MSNC the second weekend of the season (they hosted Central State Teachers’ College — now Central Michigan University — the first week), but the result was the same: a 34-0 Wolverines win, and it ended as a down year for the Hurons, with a 3-2-1 record.

EMU does have an off-field win over Michigan from that era, however; one year after Michigan opened their women’s union, the Michigan League, because women weren’t allowed full access to the Michigan Union, Michigan State Normal opened McKenny Union as a gender-integrated student center and the first student union on the campus of a normal school.

That brings us to the current series, which began in 1998, with the Wolverines coming off a national championship but reeling after losing their first two games to Notre Dame and Syracuse. A game against the Eagles proved just the thing, as the Wolverines won 59-20 (EMU's first points against Michigan, more than 100 years after the first meeting) and went on to win 8 straight games, while the Eagles finished 3-8. 2005 saw the most lopsided game in the series, when Michigan, again coming off a tough loss to Notre Dame, crushed EMU 55-0. In 2007, EMU generally kept things close, and a blocked kick returned for a touchdown gave a respectable final score of 33-22. The last meeting was Ron English’s first year, 2009. EMU had a strong first half, with the game tied at 10-10 early in the second quarter and down just 17-24 at halftime, but the Wolverines handed fifth-year senior quarterback Andy Schmitt a career-ending injury and held the Eagles scoreless in the second half, going on to win 45-17.

That brings us to the game tomorrow. I took the opportunity of this game to question two Michigan bloggers, Dave of Maize n Brew and Brian of MGoBlog. Between them they had a lot to say, we'll just look at the highlights (click here to read their full comments; here's what I had to say to Maize n Brew).

I hear a lot of people making jokes about Michigan’s special teams, particularly the place kicker(s). Are they really that bad? If so, why? If not, why the perception?

Dave: Last season Michigan’s special teams were horrible. If we were picking a beer that best describes them they wouldn’t even be beer. They would’ve been best described as drinking hairspray. Like beer, there was limited alcohol content, but you were just as likely to kill yourself drinking said hairspray (using the 2010 special teams) as get the appropriate buzz. This season… who knows. We’ve only attempted point-afters so far (and had one blocked against Western Michigan), so who the hell knows. I’m hopeful they’ll be better but after last season (and the season before) I’ll never suggest that they’ve be better simply because "they have to improve." As a beer this season…. maybe a Miller Lite. Not good. Not terrible. Just kinda there.

Players to watch other than Denard Robinson?

Dave: Wide Receiver Junior Hemingway may be one of the best receivers in the conference. Great at jump balls, great routes, extremely powerful for a WR. And he wears #21. I know of another great Michigan receiver who wore that number. Also, watch SS Jordan Kovacs. The former walk-on is a certified bad ass. He understands the defensive system and how to play in it as well as the coaches. As a result, he makes plays every game.

Under Rich Rodriguez, the defense seemed to deteriorate almost to nothing. As EMU fans are well-aware, rebuilding a neglected aspect of a program takes time, both to bring in suitable players and to teach a new system. How is the Michigan defense coming along so far?

Brian: ... Another problem is moving from Greg Robinson’s blah conservative 3-3-5 type thing to an insane aggressive NFL-style zone blitzing scheme. It’s getting guys through and forcing turnovers; it’s also giving opponents big chunks of yards when the dice rolls come out poorly.

Now that it’s had some time to sink in, what are your thoughts on the changes to Michigan Stadium?

Dave: Absolutely love them. The Big House has never been prettier, it’s easier to get around, and it’s louder than its ever been. Also, it’s far more imposing than it’s ever been.

Your prediction?

Brian: It’s hard to see Eastern’s defense keeping up with Denard but I do think the Eagles will put together a few solid drives of their own. Call it 42-17.

Dave: You’ve got a good rushing attack, so I assume Michigan will use your offense as a means to sure up its rush defense. I’m guess Michigan wins in that 41 – 14 range. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you notch an extra TD or two.

I think those predictions are probably about right.