Creighton looks to upperclassmen to lead the charge in rivalry with CMU

The last Eastern Michigan football coach to compete for the Michigan MAC Trophy was not former coach Ron English – nor was it current coach Chris Creighton.

It was interim coach Stan Parrish.

On Nov. 9, 2013 the Eagles defeated Western Michigan in overtime, 35-32 at Rynearson Stadium in Parrish’s first game at the helm. Three weeks later, Eastern fell to Central Michigan on the road, ending the 2013 season.

EMU will face CMU at home Saturday to close out a short two-game home stand.

Creighton said Monday in the team’s weekly news conference that it would fall on the students to teach the teachers – he and the coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer and defensive coordinator Brad McCaslin – what this rivalry is all about.

“We need to learn about the rivalry from our guys,” Creighton said. “It doesn’t make as much sense for me to come into the room and talk about ‘Let’s go get Central’ and talk about the history as much as for our upper classmen to let our staff [and our freshmen] to know what this rivalry is about.”

He said later: “We’re looking forward to building that up through the week,” Creighton said. “You can already sense from people who love the program that it’s a different week. Playing against Central Michigan is a big deal.”

Central Michigan coach Dan Enos spoke on Monday’s MAC coaches teleconference about what he was anticipating for Saturday’s matchup.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Enos said. “They’re a good football team.”

Starting quarterbacks

Reggie Bell will make his third consecutive start for the Eagles (2-6, 1-3 MAC). He completed 16-of-34 passes for 124 yards and an interception in last Saturday’s 28-17 loss to Northern Illinois University.

DeBoer said Monday that he was impressed with the progress he’s seen Bell make – especially given that he’s a redshirt freshman.

“He’s just every day getting better,” DeBoer said. “He’s still a young quarterback and every game there’s lessons to be learned but his development is coming along and he’s just maturing as a football player [and] he’s maturing as a leader as well on the practice field and in preparation.”

DeBoer said he thought the game against Northern Illinois was the first time he’s seen the offense play consistently for all four quarters.

“I feel good about the direction and improvement we’ve made from the Massachusetts game and it [the NIU game] gives us something to build off of,” DeBoer said.

Cooper Rush will be under center for the Chippewas (5-4, 3-2 MAC). He was 14-of-24 for 231 yards, one touchdown and one interception in last week’s 20-14 victory over the University at Buffalo.

The run game

Bell ran for 133 yards on 25 carries, scoring once. Ryan Brumfield was also a factor in the ground game – rushing 18 times for 122 yards and a score.

Despite that, Bronson Hill and Darius Jackson combined for 12 yards on five carries.

Creighton deferred to the same thing he’s said all season, about two different positions.

“Our backfield in terms of the running back situation is [that] we have three really good ones,” Creighton said Monday morning in the MAC teleconference. “We by far have the most depth at our running back position than any other place on our team.”

Central is a run-first team, but it is only ninth in the MAC in rushing offense. The Chippewas are only gaining 3.8 yards per carry.

“Their success has been to run the football consistently at teams and then capitalize with play action pass,” McCaslin said. “Their quarterback does a really good job of that. They’re a physical group … so they try to push you around. Those are the kind of games I like being [in]. It’s a challenge. Stopping the run is the first challenge of any defense and so a team that’s committed to running the football – that’s the most exciting type of game from us on a defense perspective.”

Thomas Rawls – who transferred to CMU from the University of Michigan prior to this season – is Central’s starter. He’s also been in some legal trouble which forced him to miss two games earlier this season. He was reinstated two weeks ago, but left Saturday’s game against Buffalo with an injury.

His status was not immediately known for Saturday’s game.

If Rawls doesn’t play, McCaslin said he fully expects Central to utilize the other running backs on its roster – including Saylor Lavalli who rushed for 80 yards on 21 carries, scoring twice.

“They obviously have confidence there that anybody can run the ball for them,” McCaslin said.

Secondary woes

Eastern’s secondary has been easily the most inconsistent part of the defense – but it took a turn for the better last week, holding NIU to 54 yards passing – 44 from starting quarterback Drew Hare.

“I think our secondary is definitely improving – no question about it,” Creighton said in the teleconference. “I think it may have been our best game this last Saturday. They gave up 54 yards in the air. That’s pretty good.”

McCaslin agreed that the secondary was improving, and that sometimes those players catch a tough break because they’re the most noticed defensive players on the field.

“They’re the last line of defense,” McCaslin said. “They’re the ones who are going to be seen – if a [defensive] lineman makes a mistake, nobody’s going to see that. If it gets to a secondary position and that guy has a one-on-one opportunity to make a play and doesn’t, then it shows poorly on him alone – not just he and the [defensive] lineman.”

Rush spread the ball to six different receivers last week – but only found the end zone once. This was against the same Buffalo secondary that Bell made short work of two weeks ago.

Trick or treat

Bell’s lone interception came on a trick play – a flea flicker in the third quarter of last week’s loss to NIU. Despite the lack of success, DeBoer said he wants to go back to trick plays in the future.

“I want to call it again,” he said. “I want to be able to call more [trick plays]. We need to learn from that situation. I want to have confidence in our guys and I want them to be excited about it and have that relationship to where we can call that play and the worst case scenario is that it’s an incomplete pass. We’re going to get to that point.”

Special teams are special

The Eagles also blocked two field goals against the Huskies - moving into a tie with Rutgers University in the Big Ten for first place in the FBS with five blocked field goals this season.

The team blocked two last season.

What’s the difference?

Among other things, Creighton and McCaslin agreed on one factor – effort.

“The expectation is that you’ll get to every one,” McCaslin said.

More about the rivalry

Creighton said Monday that taking the rivalry – which already began to escalate early in the week on social media – and putting it in perspective with the rest of the season is key.

“There’s definitely a balance between taking away the positives from what we’ve done in different weeks and then there’s the massive disappointment in losing,” Creighton said. “On Saturdays we’re trying to win games and we’re not trying to cut corners. It’s impossible to expedite the process and the journey and whatnot, but every week we believe it’s going to be that week that we’re turning the corner. There is some momentum and there are positive things but it doesn’t necessarily feel like that. It’s an interesting balance that way.”

Creighton also said that the rivalry – though important – isn’t everything.

“I think sometimes in rivalries that you talk about, you can be 0 and whatever and you beat your rival and the season’s saved and it’s what it’s all about,” Creighton said. “Again, we’re new to the rivalry and I’m really expecting our upperclassmen to lead us in the intensity of this rivalry. I know that we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.

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Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho

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