It’s been a long few months filled with questions needing to be answered for the Eastern Michigan Eagles, as key contributors graduated or transferred out during the offseason, one in which EMU had to look at what could have been after a late run for the division title.
But with every new season comes renewed spirits, and the Eagles will look forward to their first shift in The Factory on Friday night, hosting a tune-up game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
It’s not a game to be taken lightly; EKU, who finished 7-4 in 2021, holds the all-time series record on EMU. Putting away the Colonels in the opener will go a long way towards building some confidence in the team ahead of yet another tough campaign.
- Time and Date: Thursday, September 1, 2022, at 7 p.m. Eastern time.
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Michigan
- Spread/Total: N/A
- All-time series: Eastern Kentucky leads the all-time series 3-0-1, with the last game (in 1971) resulting in a 0-0 tie.
Getting to know the Colonels
The Colonels, as stated prior, finished 7-4 last season, ending the season with an upset win in the Opportunity Bowl against perennial FCS powerhouse Jacksonville State in double overtime. They’ll look to build upon that performance in 2022, and starting that campaign against EMU (and BGSU) gives them two FBS swings at the bat to show how dangerous a unit they can be.
The Colonels were decent in moving the ball in 2021, with 362.8 total offensive yards and 27.6 points per game last season. Where the offense was most dangerous was converting in the red zone, turning a staggering 94 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores.
The offensive line is the strongest unit on that side of the ball, with two preseason all-ASUN prospects in left tackle Payton Collins and right guard Howard Watkins Jr., who also both finished as 2021 all-ASUN linemen. Braedon Sloan (41 rush yards and one touchdown; seven catches, 74 yards, three receiving touchdowns) takes over lead back duties in 2022 after spot work last season.
They’ll seek to move the ball downfield with Walter Payton Award watchlist candidate Parker McKinney (229-of-377, 2,429 yards, 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 96 rush, 596 yards, six touchdowns) under center. He’ll have a ready-made target in tight end Dakota Allen (34 catches, 440 yards, team-leading five receiving touchdowns), who was recently named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl watchlist after a first-team all-ASUN nod from Phil Steele in 2021.
Defensively, the team is stacked with verifiable talent, with two linebackers, a defensive lineman and a corner each chosen to the preseason all-ASUN team. As a unit, the defense allowed just 25 points per game on average, while allowing 389 yards per game— but also picked up 13 interceptions and five fumble recoveries (on 14 forced fumbles) to give EKU a positive turnover margin. They’re also a unit who was excellent on “money downs” and in red zone defense, ranking 16th inthe FCS in the latter.
Matthew Jackson (team-leading 102 tackles and 11 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, eight pass break-ups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles) and Eli Hairston (49 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and one fumble return touchdown) patrol the middle of the defense for the Colonels, while former Georgia Tech transfer Kelton Dawson (31 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks) paces the line. Joseph Sayles (49 tackles, team-leading three interceptions) is a playmaker who should give opponents issues.
The team will be coached by EKU’s chief of staff Garry McPeak, as head coach Walt Wells is recovering from a cardiac episode suffered during the offseason.
Getting to know the Eagles
Chris Creighton and his crew are set for an eighth season on the now-familiar grey turf at Rynearson Stadium, as the Eagles seek to make noise in the MAC West and establish themselves as a winning presence.
The Eagles didn’t knock the socks off anyone in 2021 on either side of the ball, to say the least, but it does feel at times it’s by design. EMU finished around the middle of the league in total offense, with 380.8 yards and 30.2 points per game, while finishing with a near-bottom defense which gave up 435.5 yards and 30 points per game.
The Eagles are a team which lives and dies by an efficient passing offense with plenty of downfield options (262.8 yards per game, 34th in the NCAA) and a havoc-causing defense (+4 turnover margin, three defensive touchdowns in 2021.)
The erstwhile and dependable receiving trio of Hassan Beydoun (97 rec., 1,015 yards, four touchdowns), Tanner Knue (32 rec., 342 yards, one touchdown) and Dylan Drummond (64 receptions, 704 yards, six touchdowns) all return for the Eagles, giving former Missouri and Troy QB Taylor Powell (125-of-189, 1,251 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions) a chance to be immediately successful after the departure of Ben Bryant to Cincinnati.
Dual-back Darius Boone (120 rush, 451 yards, six touchdowns) and part-time Wildcat QB Samson Evans (83 rush, 316 yards, 13 touchdowns; 4-of-4, 43 yards, three passing touchdowns) return in the backfield as well. They’ll need to improve at finishing runs, however, as they averaged less than four yards per rush in 2021.
Defensively, this was a unit which damned the torpeodes at all costs in 2021, finishign 107th in total yards allowed, including a paltry 113th in the NCAA in rushing defense with 197.7 yards on average per game. They made up for it in accumulating turnovers and setting up favorable field position, nabbing 17 total turnovers, scoring 18 points off them. Of their 17 turnovers, 15 led to scores (three defensive touchdowns, eight offensive touchdowns, four field goals.) They’ll seek to improve slightly on the average numbers while keeping approximately the same turnover production.
Third-team all-MAC EDGE rusher Jose Ramirez returns to the roster to set the defensive tone, finishing 2021 with 63 tackles, including a team-leading 12 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks and a team-leading three forced fumbles. The team’s leading tackler Tariq Speights (92 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) also returns to the fold, though he’ll be in a rotational role this season with the addition of some key transfers.
Speaking of transfers, two linebackers from the Power Five will take the stage in starring roles, with former Michigan State Spartan Chase Kline (52 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack in three seasons) and former Boston College Eagle Jeff Sparcio (61 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception in four seasons.)
The secondary will look completely different from last season, with just one returning starter (cornerback TJ Peavy) in 2022. We’ll know more about the unit when they take the field on Friday night, but it’s a unit which was (you guessed it) near the middle of the league in 2021, placing seventh in the MAC with 237.8 yards per game and 19 touchdowns through the air.
This is a team which has a lot of potential in it and just needs to be a little more efficient in certain game situations in order to find their ceiling. 2022 will have a lot to say about whether or not this team can take the leap.