If you didn't think there would be an Eastern Michigan football blog on the internet, you'd be wrong: Not only is Eagle Totem devoted to EMU football, but it's pretty terrific. Even though Carter Adler didn't attend EMU, he covers the team like tattoos on a Philadelphian, and was gracious enough to shed some light on the Eagles and answer some of my questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: Last week, Eastern Michigan trailed going into the fourth quarter against an FCS opponent, Howard, and allowed 202 yards rushing. Were there any positives, aside from coming away 1-0?
Eagle Totem: Freshman punter Austin Barnes looked pretty good, which is important, because traditionally at EMU, the punter sees a lot of playing time. In fact, one of his punts has been the most discussed play at Eagle Totem this week. Lined up to punt late in the game the snap went very high (EMU’s long snapper is also a freshman), and Barnes made a leaping one handed grab to snag the ball and then got the punt off. The punt only went 12 yards, but he may have prevented a quick Howard touchdown.
The passing game also looked generally good. Tyler Benz looked very sharp as quarterback, completing more than 70% of his passes. After one interception early in the game on a long downfield throw (a play specifically called by Ron English) he settled down and played a very efficient game -- after which he commented that he was disappointed with some of his releases, and he felt he could have done much better. That’s what I like to hear from a quarterback!
For that matter, the defense was decent, aside from two big blown plays, both leading to Howard touchdowns. Unfortunately those plays did happen. I suspect that’s how the defense is going to be for much of this year: they’ll generally hold up against most teams, but then every once in a while they’ll just break down and give up a huge play.
BSD: Bronson Hill was a bright spot last year in a miserable season, rushing for 900 yards and 6.5 per carry. How come he had less than 4 YPC against a second-division team in Howard?
ET: If I’m not mistaken, this was the first question asked of Ron English after the game. His response was, "Early on I thought he was just OK, I thought he was looking for the home run a lot…when you have backs that get big plays, then you fall into the trap of looking for big plays and then you don’t make any plays." Hill certainly broke some big plays last year, particularly against Toledo, and he’s got the speed to go up against just about anyone. He’s the same athlete he was last year, he just needs to get back to taking the holes he’s given.
BSD: Eastern Michigan has been picked to finish dead last in the MAC by most prognosticators. Why are they wrong?
ET: Because of UMass and Akron. I just wish the Eagles had one of those teams on the schedule this year.
I think we’re partly putting too much weight on a single game. We don’t really know how good or bad Howard is. Up until a couple years ago, they were terrible -- consistently one of the worst teams in FCS -- but they’ve posted steady improvements the last two years, finishing second in their conference last year. My point is that although they’re not a top FCS team like Appalachian State or Illinois State, they’re no longer the embarrassment they once were.
In addition, EMU always seems to do well against Buffalo, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan. I don’t know why, it just is. Mix in an improved Eagle offense and the weak defenses that are characteristic of several MAC opponents, and I think it’s still entirely fair to suggest that the Eagles are not the worst team in the conference, and that the final standings will reflect that.
BSD: Ron English enters the final year of a contract that's seen him win 6 games once and two or fewer four times. What does he have to do to keep his job? Do you think any coach could take EMU out of the cellar of an increasingly competitive MAC, considering its history of futility?
ET: I’d say there’s better than a 90% chance that Ron English will be gone on January 1, the day after his contract ends. Before the season I compared his performance to what the prior three EMU coaches did. TL;DR: his performance has been worse, and they were all fired by the end of their fifth seasons. On top of that, he’s reporting to a new athletic director this year, and she may want to make her mark with a new head football coach. I think English needs to get to at least six wins this year to have a shot at an extension (even that might not do it), and it’s plausible that if he miraculously manages eight or nine wins, he’ll be hired away by a bigger school. So probably the only way he stays at EMU is if they finish right at six or seven wins.
As to whether it’s even possible to make EMU MAC-respectable, of course it is. Certainly, there are some unique challenges in Ypsilanti, not least among them proximity to Ann Arbor. Prior to Ron English there were additional challenges, such as not having an indoor practice facility. Is it any wonder that coaches have struggled with recruiting? And English has had his own set of issues, not least among them his lack of prior head coaching experience. Trying to turn around EMU football is a difficult enough job without having someone who’s also learning how to be a head coach.
I’ve said this before, and as this fall changes to winter I’m sure I’ll have occasion to say it again: rather than hire another assistant coach from a big program, EMU needs to hire an experienced head coach from a smaller program, someone who’s proven himself as a coach. Before he got in trouble I called this the "Jim Tressel model", since when Ohio State hired him, Tressel had 15 years’ experience as a head coach, including four I-AA national championships and a 135-57-2 record. If I were tasked with picking EMU’s next head coach, I’d start with the coaches of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, guys like Craig Bohl (North Dakota State) and Brock Spack (Illinois State), or even look at Division II, for someone like Matt Mitchell from Grand Valley State.
BSD: Okay, time for a little less negativity: What's EMU's strongest unit, and where will they look to exploit Penn State?
ET: As I mentioned EMU’s passing game is looking up this year, giving them a much more balanced offense. Tyler Benz is a legitimate passer who can consistently hit the receivers in stride in a way that Alex Gillett never quite could. That, in turn, should prevent defenses from crowding the box the way they did the last two years when EMU was really just a running team, and it will open up more holes for the running game.
As you noted Bronson Hill never really got going against Howard. Darius Jackson only really started getting the ball late in the game, but in those late-game possessions (not garbage time -- Howard was still playing to win at that point) he carried five times for 62 yards and a touchdown, and finished with an average of more than 9 yards per carry. After the game, Ron English mentioned that he expects to see Jackson and Hill get roughly equal carries -- I’d expect them to both get early game touches, and then go with whoever is having more success.
The question is whether EMU’s offense will be able to keep up with the massive amount of points that I expect EMU’s inexperienced defense to give up.
BSD: Prediction for how this one shapes up?
ET: Two years ago when EMU visited Beaver Stadium, the final score was 34-6. EMU’s defense was probably better then, but the offense that year bordered on inept. I expect more scoring all around. Maybe 38-24, with EMU scoring a late touchdown to make it look a little more respectable.
Thanks again, Carter, and be sure to visit EagleTotem.com for all your Eastern Michigan needs.