Some thoughts on Eastern after the LendingTree Bowl

I suppose that it's unfair to criticize a team that has tied its best performance since 1987. I also don't want to sound ungrateful for the many high points that EMU has had over the past six years. However, is it too much to ask for this program to take a step to the next level? When does just making a bowl game go from being an achievement to being normal? When does a successful season become winning bowl games, winning 8 games, winning the Michigan MAC Trophy, winning the MAC West, and or contending for a MAC title? Pardon me if I'm not understanding this right, but I'm fairly certain that Chris Creighton has raised the floor of this team, it's time to raise the expectations of what can be accomplished in Ypsilanti.

When you look at Eastern's wins this year, most of them weren't a surprise, and three of four conference wins came down to the wire. If Miami and or Western doesn't miss a field goal (they both did); and or if Toledo had managed to get that touchdown at the end of the first half; then this a 6-6, 5-7, or even 4-8 season. As much as there was luck in those games, there were some unlucky moments in losses too that kept Eastern from possibly going to Detroit for a shot at a title. Luck is generally used in sports as a way of categorizing what's beyond your control. The best teams leave nothing to chance, they control their controllables because they expect their opponent to do likewise.

This is where we get into the crux of the issue with the LendingTree Bowl performance. Coach Creighton's initial answer to the first question at the pre-game press conference ("How are you going to stop Malik Willis?") was something along the lines of hope for bad weather and try to sneak a 12th man on the field. Clearly it was a joke, but a lot of truth can be said in jest. Now to be fair, Willis is without a shadow of a doubt the best QB EMU has faced this year, and will certainly have his shot to play in the NFL. Liberty is also a very well coached and talented team (regardless of how people feel about the institution or Hugh Freeze) whose record is probably not reflective of their talent. Even if you take those caveats into account, the spread was nine points, the Flames were on a three losing streak and both teams had the same record. In spite of that potential window to catch Liberty while they were on the slide, EMU got absolutely embarrassed. A lot of the reason appears to be that Liberty making mistakes was an integral part of the plan on how to stop them.

Even early on, when the Eagles were controlling the ball it still wasn't enough to keep Liberty off the board. No team can keep the opposition from having the ball in football, you have to make a stop at some point. This defense had managed to not get gashed through the air in the first half of the season. But Malik Willis was simply hitting the big plays that Daniel Richardson, Kurtis Rourke, and Dequan Finn were able to find after the calendar flipped to November. EMU had a reputation for bending but not breaking on defense, but did both so when Liberty got the ball they scored, and as Eastern's offense started to spin its wheels, Liberty scored even more. Willis' athleticism allowed him to allude Turan Rush and Jose Ramirez in a way that few have been able to this year. Many of the same big picture issues that plagued the run defense all year reared their heads again. Going for guys who are a bit on the lighter side, not an awful lot of substitution, and just in general being content with allowing the inside run because it probably won't be a big play. Eastern hasn't held an opponent under 100 yards rushing since their last bowl appearance (and that might have had more to do with the opposing QB being Kenny Pickett, this team has bad luck with the bowl draw clearly). Hope is not a viable strategy, when the other team doesn't throw into double coverage multiple times, there needs to be a plan B. ESPN showed footage of EMU practicing a strip the ball drill before the Western game (in which the Eagles forced and recovered a critical fumble) and that made me concerned. I get that turnovers are important, but this team needs to emphasize tackling the ballcarrier as much as ripping out the ball (yes I'm aware that's not part of pregame warmups). Time and time again opponents bust through arm tackles after cleanly reaching the second or third level. Time and time again this team is setup to get punched in the face and take it, because maybe the opponent might give you the ball, Liberty didn't do that until garbage time, and neither did the other five teams that beat Eastern. If simply running and not fumbling can make your defense start to crumble it's got a faulty foundation of fundamentals. There's a reason "bend don't break" is not a term found often in building codes.

Then there's the offense, where running back by committee seems to be the result of no one emerging as an all-purpose number one back. It looked like this approach would be viable until MAC play when it became clear this team was going to have difficulty running the ball. I can't help but wonder if starting RG Jake Donellon hadn't been injured most of this year, if things had been different. Donellon was injured in the home opener against St. Francis, and replaced by Alex Howie, who was injured against Ball State and replaced by Richard Bates Jr. (who in turn was replaced by Howie after an injury in the bowl game). I don't take any joy in criticizing players, in fact I kind of abhor it, these guys are ostensibly adding a full time (unpaid) job with serious injury risks on to their plates in addition to trying to get a college education. That being said backups are not starters, and the famous "next man up" is not always going to be playing at the same level as the last guy. Offensive lines are intricate machines where success is determined by how the pieces fit in addition to their quality. In spite of the depth chart at one of five spots getting eaten alive by injury bugs, the other four starters have been the same since the start of last year, with three having started together since the start of 2019, so this might not look like a problem. Not having Tanner Knue and Bryson Cannon healthy at the same time also didn't help. Lots of people will highlight that Creighton has been calling plays the last two years since former OC Aaron Keen is now the coach at Washington University in St. Louis. There's certainly a temptation to say that having the head coach calling plays is a part of the problem, but the yards per play and per rush barely changed over the last three years. It doesn't matter who's calling the plays when the line is struggling and the only options are quick passes the defense can just soak up and drive on. When the O Line clicks, the Eagles fly, unfortunately the last two games have not been examples of that. The responsibilities for building depth and for identifying guys to fill roles are two places where the offensive coaching staff gets an incomplete this year. This could be a byproduct of not having many opportunities to pull the starters in recent years to get the backups game reps, but that's also on the coaches. While play calling at times was brutally predictable, there is some potential for things to work better because there were games this year where the backups could get reps with a big lead.

Finally circling back to expectations. Outside of a stretch from 1986-89 under Jim Harkema, and the tenure of Dan Boisture from 1968-73, this is the golden age of EMU football in what approximates a modern college football era. This is a program which won 8 games in 1977, and 8 games from 1978 to 1984, a program that had only one .500 season from 1996-2015 (with two wins over FCS teams). Eastern was almost kicked out of the MAC in 1984 only for the NCAA to overrule the decision, ultimately benefiting the conference as the incoming recruits would snap the MAC's three year postseason losing streak their senior year. In 2016 many at EMU were calling for football to be cut as the investment of precious resources at a small public university into the team clearly wasn't producing any results. That year was the turning point that brought this team to where it is today. Winning at Eastern was never easy, Fred Trosko had a solid first half of his tenure with Interstate Athletic Conference titles in 1954 and 1957. However, the second half of his tenure included a 29 game winless streak largely spurned by EMU being the only team in the conference not offering athletic scholarships. Historically speaking, this is a team that is defined in hard times, much like the region for which the University would be renamed in the 1956. Being "EMU Tough" might be a slogan that comes from the same place as the grey turf, the pipe wrench, the hammers breaking down the wall, and the coaching staff dressing like they work at the Belle Tire on Washtenaw Ave. on occasion, but there's something to that slogan. The reward for that toughness is breaking the bonds of history, forging a new path, building new traditions, and redefining what people think of Eastern Michigan both on and off the football field. This team said they'd be different this year, and in the grand scheme of things they were. However, the expectations shouldn't be where they were in 2016. EMU should not be satisfied with winning about as often as losing, or with the fact that this program exists. Fans leaving in the third quarter at homecoming in a tight game doesn't have to be the norm. Getting embarrassed either by conduct or the scoreboard when on the national stage (Quick Lane Bowl, Wisconsin this year, and LendingTree Bowl) doesn't have to be the norm. One score games don't have to be the norm. The community that surrounds Eastern Michigan University and its football team have reason to believe that there are better things out there. Chris Creighton has achieved that most elusive of goals for this program, stability. If he's good enough to stabilize this program at around .500 (34-35 since the start of 2016 to be specific), then it's time for the bar to be raised. My concern as a fan and alum, is this. If we're not going to demand more collectively (Players, Staff, Fans, Media, and the broader Eastern Michigan community) of this program as a whole, what's to stop it from going backwards?

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