The first Saturday in December ended plenty of teams’ pursuit for perfection. A trend which was especially prevalent involved undefeated teams losing to squads with losing records. This was noticeable in Marshall’s loss to Rice and Washington’s shortcoming against Stanford. The MAC took this to the extreme, as a winless Eastern Michigan derailed Western Michigan’s unbeaten campaign in Kalamazoo, 53-42.
The shootout victory marked the Eagles’ second-straight win over the Broncos. Still, the Michigan MAC Trophy (awarded to a Michigan-based MAC team that finished 2-0 against the other Michigan MAC teams) remains with the Broncos by default due to a circle of parity forming between the three rivals for the second-straight year.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s upset:
Eastern Michigan is better than its record suggests
Entering the fifth week of MAC play, there were four 0-4 teams — Akron, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, and Eastern Michigan. While the record looks the same on paper, Eastern Michigan is a different 0-4 than the others. The Eagles lost its first four games to above .500 teams with a combined record of 13-6. In three of those defeats, Eastern Michigan held a fourth quarter lead and lost by one possession. The Eagles have lost six consecutive games decided by one score, often exhibiting a mixture of a lack of execution combined with terrible luck in games’ most crucial moments.
But Saturday was different, because the Eagles played from ahead and sustained that lead. They closed out the final 5:02 of the third quarter in a valiant manner with 13 unanswered points spanning three possessions, clinging on to a 43-28 advantage entering the fourth. After suffering a collapse for the ages on Black Friday against Central Michigan, the Eagles’ offense went full throttle in the fourth quarter and manufactured two scoring drives to seal the win. Against Kent State, Ball State, and Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan proved it is capable of competing with almost anybody in the MAC. Finally in Kalamazoo, a win came to fruition for a program that has been on the wrong side of countless close games.
Western Michigan has a penalty problem
Penalties almost cost Western Michigan the Toledo game, but a miraculous sequence featuring an onside kick and an improbable fake spike touchdown allowed the Broncos to prevail. However, it was clear that such costly errors could eventually spoil Western Michigan’s spotless record.
The Broncos rank 113th out of 127 teams in 2020 in penalty yards per game, piling up an average of 72.4. In the loss to Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan committed 13 penalties totaling 93 yards. And it’s not like the Broncos are only committing minor infractions — this team is consistently flagged for personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conducts. Eastern Michigan’s final two drives were propelled by a personal foul and a face mask. Meanwhile on the offensive end, Western Michigan’s final scoring drive was nearly wiped away by committing two penalties near the goal line before Kaleb Eleby connected with Skyy Moore on a do-or-die 4th and goal opportunity.
Once Eastern Michigan extended the lead to 53-42, the chances of a Western Michigan comeback were slim, but still, it was infuriating for Broncos fans to see a delay of game penalty move a 38-yard field goal attempt to a 43-yarder, and the field goal sailed outside the uprights. Many of these penalties are preventable and this should be at the forefront of issues the Broncos address heading into Saturday’s de facto MAC Championship.
Chris Creighton found yet another good quarterback
Last season, Preston Hutchinson entered the rivalry game against Western Michigan with five career passing attempts under his wing. Filling in for the injured Mike Glass III, Hutchinson delivered a performance of a lifetime in his first start, completing 31/36 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns — including a game-winning heave to Mathew Sexton down the sideline.
While Hutchinson hasn’t been perfect this year, he’s shown solid potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the MAC for the next several seasons. Hutchinson once again surpassed the 300-yard mark against Western Michigan, accompanied by three touchdown passes. He’s also perfected the zone read this season, and although the Broncos keyed on his rushing tendencies, the junior quarterback managed a fourth touchdown as a rusher.
Hutchinson completes over 62 percent of his passes and he fires an average of 283 yards per game. To add to his passing proficiency, he has seven rushing touchdowns through five games including a 104-yard outburst against Ball State. He’s one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the MAC, and he appears to be another great find under Chris Creighton.
Creighton built Eastern Michigan from the ground up with the talents of Brogan Roback, continued with Mike Glass III, and now Hutchinson appears to be the third highly-capable quarterback in the Creighton era. Given Eastern Michigan’s pre-Creighton history, having three QBs of that caliber in succession is remarkable for the program.
Teams’ turnovers tendencies transformed
Western Michigan was one of the most sound teams in taking care of the ball before Saturday. The Broncos committed one turnover in their first four games, a Kaleb Eleby interception that ricocheted off the hands of his receiver in the first quarter against Central Michigan. Western Michigan didn’t even fumble once.
But they lost three fumbles Saturday and were obliterated 3-0 in the turnover battle, and Eastern Michigan cashed those three for 12 points in a game decided by 11. All three fumbles transpired in Western Michigan territory, permitting Eastern Michigan’s offense to operate in short fields. The third quarter was especially problematic for the Broncos because they fumbled a kickoff, allowed Eastern Michigan to kick a field goal, and then fumbled two plays into their ensuing drive. The result was a gassed defense which had to retake the field spontaneously on two occasions, shortly after allowing an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to open the half.
On the other hand of the turnover battle, Eastern Michigan finally solved its giveaway woes for a game. The Eagles committed 11 turnovers in their first four losses, including a unrestrained five turnovers in a brutal loss to Central Michigan. Instead, the Eagles offense was able to roll down the field, and running back Darius Boone Jr. showcased his talents with 148 rushing yards while Hutchinson attacked the air. The end result of a no-turnover game was Eastern Michigan’s first 50 burger against an FBS team since 2017.
Chad Ryland proves special teams matter
We weren’t going to end this without a special teams shoutout, and Eastern Michigan kicker Chad Ryland deserves one after nailing all four field goal attempts and all five extra points in the Eagles’ 53-42 upset. It’s been a rough year for MAC kicking ever since that opening night when six extra points missed the uprights. But Ryland is working to rebuild the conference’s kicking reputation and has made a solid case for a slot on the All-MAC team after being solely responsible for 17 points in the victory.
Ryland ranks 27th in the FBS in field goal percentage with 81.8 and is 17th among kickers with as many as 10 attempts. While Ryland sunk three field goals under 30 yards in Kalamazoo, he also proved his range by adding a 46-yarder in the third quarter. Ryland is reliable for the Eagles and is a perfect 8/8 from under 50 yards this season.