Last season was a landmark year for Chris Creighton and the Eastern Michigan Eagles. For the first time since 1987, the program finished a season in a bowl game, narrowly falling to Old Dominion 24-20 in the Popeye's Bahamas Bowl.
So greater expectations awaited the Eagles entering 2017. And the team is performing at one of its highest levels in the past 30 years. But they're 2-5.
How? Let's take a look at the unluckiest team in college football through a game-by-game basis.
Eastern Michigan 24, Charlotte 7
There's not much to see here. The Eagles expectedly put the 49ers to sleep at The Factory in their home opener. Eastern Michigan hadn't started 1-0 against FBS competition since the 2004 season, so 2017 was already miles ahead of the previous decades of Eagles football.
Eastern Michigan 16, Rutgers 13
Eastern Michigan starts 2-0 for the first time since 2011. The Eagles were actually one of the remaining 37 undefeated squads after Week 3. Although it was against the Big Ten's usual bottom-feeder Rutgers — which looks improved at 3-4 with wins over Illinois and Purdue — this counts as the Eagles' first ever Big Ten and Power Five victory.
A Paul Fricano field goal in the early fourth quarter gave Eastern Michigan a lead it would not relinquish. The Eagles' defense staved off Rutgers' attempt at a game-winning drive in the final 1:34.
Ohio 27, Eastern Michigan 20 (OT)
In a game which appeared to be between two of the MAC's top two contenders (and two greenest teams), the Bobcats and Eagles were deadlocked after 60 minutes of action.
In overtime, Brogan Roback fired a pass to Sergio Bailey in the end zone to put the Eagles up 20-13, and the Eagles' defense played forcefully on the first several plays of Ohio's possession. But a defensive pass interference call on 3rd-and-8 from the 23-yard line changed the entire course of the game, and Ohio was granted new life. Nathan Rourke completed a touchdown pass to tie the score at 20, and on the Bobcats' consecutive possession, Rourke tossed another ball in the end zone for six points.
Down seven in second overtime, Eastern Michigan's offense could not replicate its success from first overtime. On 4th-and-4, Roback's pass fell incomplete and the Bobcats walked out of Ypsilanti with a coveted conference victory. The Eagles fell to 2-1 and were undefeated no more.
Kentucky 24, Eastern Michigan 20
The Eagles would earn a second opportunity at knocking off a Power Five foe. This time it would be Kentucky, who currently sits at a remarkable 5-2. But Eastern Michigan established its presence in Lexington first, leading the Wildcats 7-0 after a touchdown on its first possession.
The game was knotted up at 14 at halftime, much to the displeasure of both team's fan bases. Kentucky jumped to a 24-14 advantage in the second half as a result of the Eastern Michigan offense's inability to move the ball downfield. The Eagles did throw a costly interception within the Kentucky 30-yard line with under six minutes left, but they regained possession and scored a quick touchdown to make it 24-20.
With 44 seconds left and down by four, Eastern Michigan received an opportunity to drive 88 yards down the field to earn the sought-after SEC victory. Roback and the offense moved the ball through the air and achieved three first downs on the drive. But the final play came from 47 yards away from the end zone. Roback's Hail Mary attempt would be intercepted and the Eagles would drop their second-straight heartbreaker.
Toledo 20, Eastern Michigan 15
Playing in the Glass Bowl, the Eagles weren't expected to do much damage against the Toledo Rockets and their dominant offense. Instead of a Toledo offensive clinic, this MAC West matchup turned out to be a defensive slugfest but the Rockets led for the entirety of second half.
With under three minutes left, Eastern Michigan nearly assembled a game-winning possession to dethrone Toledo from its 20-15 lead. Roback pushed the offense as far forward as the Toledo 37-yard line, but once again, an interception plagued the Eagles' chances of winning.
On 1st-and-20 from the 47 of Toledo, the Rockets sealed a tough-fought home win over the Eagles on a crucial turnover. The once 2-0 Eagles would fall to 2-3 after yet another series of unfortunate events.
Army 28, Eastern Michigan 27
Out of all five of Eastern Michigan's losses, I'd definitely rank this one as the most heartbreaking. Eastern Michigan never led in the game's final half but the Eagles consistently responded to Army touchdowns.
With about five minutes remaining and down 28-21, the green and grey team strung together an 11-play, 75-yard drive, ending in six points. Sergio Bailey would catch the touchdown pass to make it 28-27 but the Eagles weren't interested in playing for overtime on the road in West Point.
On the two-point conversion attempt, Roback pitched the ball to the halfback Ian Eriksen on an option to the left side of the field. Eriksen appeared to have a clear path to the goal line until an Army defender jumped into the equation at the last second. The running back attempted to hurdle him and was flipped upside down in the process. Both teams celebrated in the seconds after the incident, both believing they benefitted from the result of the two-point attempt. But only Army would reap the benefits, because the ball never crossed the goal line during Eriksen's mid-air adventure. The Black Knights won 28-27 but the win was by less than one point. It was by about an inch.
Western Michigan 20, Eastern Michigan 17 (OT)
It was another low-scoring overtime contest for Chris Creighton. And unfortunately for the folks in Ypsilanti, the Eagles lost this one too.
Once again, the Eagles never led after halftime, playing just a touchdown behind. Eastern Michigan tied its rival at 17 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After Western Michigan's kicker Josh Grant missed a 37-yard game-winning attempt, the teams would battle it out in the extra period.
Western Michigan's offense — after losing starting quarterback Jon Wassink — drove right down near the goal line, earning 2nd-and-goal from the 5. But the Eastern Michigan defense held its own and forced a field goal, providing a golden opportunity to finally earn its first conference victory.
And after several Broncos' penalties and Eriksen rushes, the Eagles received an opportunity at 2nd-and-goal from the 2, with the game nearly handed to them on a silver platter. The next two plays both were touches by Eriksen, who lost a collective five yards to set up a 24-yard field goal. But Paul Fricano missed it, and the Eagles sunk to 2-5 and 0-3 in the MAC.
Eastern Michigan's point differential against FBS teams is exactly 0, so that will change when the Eagles take on the Northern Illinois Huskies on Thursday night. Teams with worse point differentials against FBS teams than the Eagles (who rank 67th in the category) include:
- Syracuse (the 4-4 team that beat Clemson)
- California (same team that beat Washington State by 34, Cal is 4-4)
- Kentucky (the 5-2 team mentioned earlier in this piece that EMU nearly beat)
- Florida State (Seminoles are 2-4, but it's just odd to see Florida State below EMU)
- Boston College (4-4, beat NIU, CMU, Louisville, and then destroyed Virginia by 31)
Eastern Michigan's losses have been by 7 (OT), 4, 5, 1, and 3 (OT) points. The team has received an opportunity at a game-winning drive in each one of these crushing defeats. Late-game execution has been the greatest struggle of Eastern Michigan, a team that has now matched its loss total from the 2016 regular season.
Perhaps playing in front instead of behind in second halves is one element that Creighton and the Eagles must focus on in order to put an end to these close losses.
Lastly, it's worth noting the most points Eastern Michigan has yielded this year is 28 to Army, a 6-2 team loaded with talent on its triple option offense. The defense (19.9 opponent points per game) is the main factor that keeps these low-scoring games close and interesting, but the offense needs to finally finish and deliver the game-winning drive Eastern Michigan fans have been waiting for all season long.