The crisp chill of autumn has started to set in gradually, and with it, the first of the MAC's league offerings.
Last week saw two early conference contests, but this week will see the launch of several league campaigns. Saturday's game between the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-2) and the Eastern Michigan Eagles (2-2) will be counted amongst them. The game between the two squads will count as the opening leg of the Michigan MAC Trophy as well, giving this game some more stakes than usual.
Let's jump right in to what's sure to be an interesting contest:
- Time and date: Saturday, September 30th, 2023 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Kramer/Deromedi Field at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
- Gambling considerations: Central is a 7.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 48, per DraftKings.
- All-time series: CMU is ahead in the all-time series by a margin of 63-31-6.
- Current streak: EMU (1, 2022)
- Last meeting: The Eagles clinched a share of the MAC West Championship and the Michigan MAC Trophy with a dominating 38-19 win over the Chippewas on Nov. 25, 2022.
Getting to know the Eagles
The Eagles are limping into this contest after a rough 21-0 shutout loss to FBS newcomer Jacksonville State last week. It's their second loss in three games by three-plus scores, having also lost to Minnesota 25-6 two weeks back. Even the win sandwiched in-between the losses doesn't inspire much confidence, needing a last-minute miracle play to down UMass 19-17.
All that said, the Eagles can be a thorny side when they want to be thanks to their opportunistic style of play.
The Eagles have thrived off the big play, with two special teams touchdowns and two 50+ yard big play scores accounting for all four of their non-field goal scores in 2023. It's what they've had to do so far in the season, as their typically efficient offense has ran into several roadblocks through the first quarter of the season.
The Eagles are in service academy/Iowa territory in the passing game, with just 498 yards and two scores on 52 percent completion (126th in the NCAA). Austin Smith is the likely starter for EMU given his experience, but he saw himself in a rotation with backup Ike Udengwu (7-of-18, 42 yards, two interceptions) last week. It’s unclear as of now what the plan is for the Eagles, but they’ll likely lean on the run game to push them through while they figure it out.
That run game, a strength of the team last year, is facing similar issues to the passing game this year. The Eagles average just over four yards an attempt and are one of six teams to score two rushing touchdowns or less. They’re currently at 462 yards in 113 carries, good for 107th in the NCAA. Samson Evans, the dynamo of the offense the last two seasons, has averaged a mere 55 yards per game and has just one touchdown through four games. Compliment back Jaylon Jackson has faced similar issues, averaging 49 yards per game with one score.
Shifty receiver Tanner Knue (15 receptions, 119 yards, one touchdown) and tight end Blake Daniels (nine receptions, 101 yards) are the main targets in the passing game. The Eagles are still looking for a third option to step up as well. One assumes a steady presence at quarterback or better protection at the line will help foster more targets all around.
Defensively, this is a team which is a bit uneven, coming in 107th in overall defense (415.8 yards per game), but more importantly, 53rd in scoring defense (21.5 points per game on average) and 70th in third-down conversions (40 percent.)
They’ve allowed just 10 touchdowns all season, a number which would put them in the top third of NCAA teams, but still sit at 2-2 with some narrow wins. The defense is a bit of an enigma in that regard.
Linebacker Joe Spiracio is already at 52 tackles through four games, leading the Eagles with an average of 13 stops per game. Battery mate Chase Kline has been a wrecker, with 37 tackles overall, including three tackles-for-loss, two sacks, three QB hits and a forced fumble. EDGE rusher Mikah Coleman has also found success getting into the backfield, leading the team in both TFLs (five) and sacks (three.) Bennett Walker has been on a hot streak of late in the defensive backfield, with three interceptions in the last three games.
The Eagles also have one of the best specialist units in the league, with Jesus Gomez (4-of-4 on field goals) and Mitchell Tomasek (23 punts, average 46.9 yards per punt) considered some of the best at their positions. Tomasek had two separate 60+ yard punts vs. Jacksonville State last week.
Getting to know the Chippewas
The Chippewas are at a crucial point in their recovery from a down 2022 season. Last year was a self-admitted failure, with coaches citing maturity issues and growing pains after moving on from lots of senior leadership.
When asked about the team’s growth so far in the season during weekly press availability, assistant head coach Mike Zordich said of the unit “We’re on the second rung, with 10 [more rungs] to go.”
Part of that development was learning how to win in a hostile environment; CMU did just that last week vs. South Alabama, a team which had embarrassed them at home the prior season. They did so on the back of four rushing touchdowns and five total from quarterback Jase Bauer, who took over duties from Bert Emanuel Jr. early in the first quarter.
Officially, both Emanuel and Bauer are still considered co-starters, so it’s to be determined what the plan is moving forward. When asked about it, Zordich opted to decline specifics, saying “it’s exciting” to consider both quarterbacks. “From the stands, it looks like a two-headed monster,” Zordich opined. “As a coach, it’s a pain in the rear.”
Bauer certainly seems to be the outside favorite to lead the team, as he turned in two decent performances against Notre Dame and South Alabama on the road, leading eight scoring drives and another drive ending in a missed field goal in his two major appearances. Bauer sits at 32-of-59 for 381 yards and a touchdown through the air, with 98 net yards (133 gained) and five scores on 30 rushes.
There’s still a lot of belief in Emanuel as well, as he still sits in second on the CMU rushing charts with 150 yards and two touchdowns despite not traveling to Notre Dame game and sitting for the majority of the South Alabama contest. He’s 19-of-37 for 286 yards and three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Regardless of quarterback, the rushing game still plays a vital role for the Chippewa offense. Myles Bailey has seemingly won the majority of carries so far this season, leading the Chips with 50 carries for 213 yards and a score. Marion Lukes is the primary breather back, with 110 yards on 28 carries. Both quarterbacks play vital roles in the rushing attack as well, giving CMU a wealth of options.
It’s a free-for-all for receivers, as it seems a different player seems to emerge every week for the Chips. Jesse Prewitt III has been Jase Bauer’s favorite receiver of late, as he nearly doubles the next-best receiver with 13 receptions and 233 yards for two scores. Chris Parker tends to be Bert Emanuel’s favorite target, with seven targets for 168 yards and a score. Tyson Davis has emerged as a third receiver threat for both signalcallers, with 113 yards and a score on seven catches.
Defensively, this is one of the worst units in the country, something Zordich, who also coaches the team’s defensive backs, admitted was an issue.
“We still have a long way to go in the back end with free runs and checks we missed,” Zordich said. “It’s one thing to talk, it’s another thing to listen when it comes to communication.”
That lack of trust and communication has showed, as CMU had given up six “explosive” touchdowns of 20 yards or more and 22 such plays overall going into last week. They gave up two more such touchdowns (both on Caulin Lacy receiving scores) and two other plays over 20+ yards throughout against South Alabama, a noticeable improvement from their prior contests.
Overall though, this is a defense which is still building. They’re 126th in the NCAA in total defense, with 481.8 yards per game allowed on average and 19 overall touchdowns. They’re especially exploitable in the defensive secondary, giving up 342 yards per game and 11 total touchdowns through the air.
This does present an opportunity for a languid Eagles offense for a get-right game, but it could just as well be a confidence-establishing game for a Chips DB room which wants to prove the start of the season isn’t indicative of what they can do at full sail.
Linebacker Kyle Moretti finally surpassed Donte Kent in total tackles recently, now sitting at 36 total tackles with two tackles-for-loss and two pass break-ups. Jacques Bristol continues to pace the middle of the defense, with 4.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks on the season. This is a pass rush which has still yet to get up to snuff; the unit has combined for just five sacks in four games. They’re surely salivating when looking at their matchup with an EMU line which has struggled against defensive lines thus far in 2023.
Special teams are uneven, with Tristan Mattson currently 2-of-3 in placekicking and 13-of-14 on extra points. Jake Walrath has 26 punts for 1,162 yards (44.6 yards per boot) so far in 2023.