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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Eastern Michigan Eagles

Can the Eagles repeat the results of last year?

The Eagles look to repeat their high flying ways of last season.
Kenneth Bailey

Chris Creighton returns to the helm of the Eastern Michigan Eagles football team for his fourth season. The 2016 Eagles entered the season as one of the dark horse candidates. Few people predicted their success but for some reason, I saw something in the 2015 season that led me to believe that last year would be a break-out season for them.

And ultimately, it was.

Coach Creighton looks towards the Number 1 spot in the MAC.
Kenneth Bailey

By getting seven wins last year, Chris Creighton more than doubled his win total of the prior two seasons combined. EMU finished with a 7-5 regular season record and was able to secure its first bowl game in 29 years under the leadership of Creighton and his staff. Under the tutelage of Neal Neathery, the Eastern Michigan defense cut the average rushing yards allowed per game in half. And I never thought they were completely out of the five games that they did lose.

So of course, Eastern Michigan has put itself on the radar this year, which leads to the question of whether or not they can win this year too. So let’s delve a little deeper into that subject.

Five Players to Watch

Brogan Roback

Brogan Roback was a key component of success to the team last year.
Kenneth Bailey

After sitting out the first two games of the season due to a team suspension, it looked like Brogan Roback may not play again at all last year. After Todd Porter threw his eighth interception of the season in the Wyoming, Roback was pressed into battle. He was able to lead the team to a pretty nice comeback. When Porter was injured in the Bowling Green game, the quarterback spot was Roback’s to lose. He didn’t lose it.

One of the knocks on Roback in the past was his poor decision-making skill. Last year, he only threw seven interceptions, which worked out to less than one per game played. He was fairly accurate at 58% and passed for an average of 269 yards per game. He was standing behind a line that allowed 1 sack per game. He also had some pretty good targets to pass to.

This season, Roback still has some pretty good targets to throw to but he is behind an inexperienced line. Hopefully that line will learn quickly and Roback will be able to use his experienced receivers to his advantage.

Sergio Bailey II

Any excuse to post this picture again is a good one.
Kenneth Bailey

Sergio Bailey II returns to the EMU roster as the receiving leader from last season in receptions (60,) yards (868,) and touchdowns (7). Bailey was certainly one of the more exciting players to watch in the MAC, dropping highlight reel plays with abandon. With the catch pictured above, he was able to secure the Eagle victory over Central Michigan. That also gave them the 7-5 record which was probably critical for them going to a decent bowl.

Bailey is well in position to be the number one target for Roback this season and should emerge as a breakout star at the receiver position.

Dieuly Aristilde

Kenneth Bailey

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Aristilde as well. He averaged 82 yards per game last year and was a key secondary target for Roback, especially as a big, lanky chunk-yardage target. Aristilde averaged an astounding 19.2 yards per reception in 2016 and could see more targets this season. He was injured in the Bahamas Bowl game but he should be back this season.

Shaq Vann

Shaq Vann punching it in for a TD.
Kenneth Bailey

Shaq Vann didn’t make a huge impact last season because he was injured in the second game, but his impact when he is on the field is massive. In the two games he did play in, he was able to get 170 yards. Vann has been taking first-team reps in fall camps for the Eagles, so it’s clear the staff has a lot of faith in Vann to get the job done despite last year’s significant injury. He is certainly an electric player to watch and I expect big things from him this year.

Ian Eriksen

Picking up part of the load was Ian Eriksen
Kenneth Bailey

In the absence of Shaq Vann, the rushing load was picked up pretty well by Ian Eriksen, who led the Eagles in overall yards form scrimmage last season with 1,014 total yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. Ian averaged 70 yards per game while getting starting reps and was the leader of the running back committee. I don’t see any reason why he can’t improve on that total this season as the primary backup.

Four Games to Watch

Charlotte 49’ers - Sept. 1: The Charlotte 49’ers travel to Rynearson Stadium for the first time. This will be the second meeting of the two teams. Eastern Michigan was able to beat them last year by a score of 37-19. This is the first game of the season and I think the first game always sets the tone for the rest of the season. I honestly see no reason why Eastern Michigan shouldn’t repeat their performance against the 49’ers this year.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights - Sept. 9: Eastern Michigan makes the trek to New Jersey where they will face Rutgers. Their last meeting resulted in an Eastern Michigan loss. Based on performances from last year, I think that Eastern Michigan will gain their first victory from a Big Ten* team.

Toledo Rockets - Oct. 7: The Eagles travel down US-23 to face the Toledo Rockets. As Toledo is the team predicted to win the MAC, this is a yardstick game. Last year, Eastern Michigan lost to the Rockets by a score of 35-20 but it wasn’t a particularly bad loss. If a couple plays went differently, Eastern Michigan might have been celebrating the victory.

Central Michigan - Nov. 8: I was actually hoping to travel to this game but the MAC decided that they should play on weeknight games. Being a working type makes that tough. This is another yardstick game. Eastern Michigan usually plays their instate rivals pretty tough but Central is usually on the top side of those games. I think this is another game that Eastern Michigan should win.

Three Keys to Success

Jeremiah Harris seals the deal in the Central game last year.
Kenneth Bailey

Continue to Improve on Defense

One of the biggest surprises for me from last year was the improvement Eastern Michigan made on defense. They especially improved on run defense by cutting the rushing yards per game allowed in half. If you take away Todd Porter’s interceptions, they had an almost two to one takeaway ratio. I think they still had a weakness in the big play area in that thUtilizing Their Many Skill Playersey allowed to many of them.

The big question mark for this season is whether or not the other players will be able to step up to make up for the loss of Pat O’Connor. Jeremiah Harris had half as many sacks and tackles for loss as Pat O’Connor but hopefully he will be able to step up. With 109 tackles, Kyle Rachwal led the team. Hopefully he can make his way to the backfield more often.

The Offensive Line Must Step Up

Last year, Eastern Michigan played behind an experienced offensive line. That helped keep pressure off Roback and allowed them to let plays develop. Hopefully the less experienced offensive line will gel.

Skill Players Must Continue to Develop, Build on Momentum

Eastern Michigan is returning their quarterback, four running backs and three receivers from last year. They were a pretty exciting bunch of players to watch last year. I am hoping that they will be able to spread the field this year and produce some pretty prolific offense. I am hoping they can improve their points per game this year.

Bold Prediction Time

Last year I made the bold prediction of Eastern Michigan finishing 6-6. It turns out that I was wrong: they finished 7-6. It may be tougher for them to repeat this season because they only play five games at home. On paper, their non-conference schedule looks doable and I think they will finish September at three and one. When the clock reaches zero at around 10:00 P.M. on November 21st, I think they will be standing at 7-5 and qualify for a second-stragiht bowl game.

Author thinks Eastern will still be flying high in 2017.
Kenneth Bailey

*nominally, Rutgers is in the Big Ten. But barely.