Eastern Michigan football coach Chris Creighton has endured difficult losses in his first season in Ypsilanti – while last week’s loss was what he called the “most difficult loss of the season”, the argument can be made that Saturday’s 28-17 loss to Northern Illinois University is the most disappointing.
“Honestly I still think we’re going to win the game that just ended,” he said. “I don’t have a lot to say other than to tell you what I told the guys in the locker room – that I’m totally proud of them. [I] love every one of them. They fought exactly like the way that we said we were going to fight today.”
“It’s really hard to swallow that we didn’t win this game because I know in my heart that we absolutely could have,” he said later.
It was the first loss for the Eagles at home since falling 58-7 to Bowling Green on Nov. 23, 2013.
Reggie Bell was the starting quarterback for Eastern (2-6, 1-3 Mid-American Conference). He was 16-for-34 for 124 yards and an interception. Bell also carried 25 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.
“Bell is going to make plays for years,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “He has a good arm and can make plays for them and then they can also roll him out and run with him.”
Ryan Brumfield was also a prominent part of the Eagles offense Saturday. He rushed 18 times for 122 yards and a touchdown.
“They were both [the run game and the passing offense] there,” Bell said. “The run game was there I feel like a little bit more because Northern was probably keying on me, so by them keying on me it’ll open up the run for Ryan Brumfield.”
Creighton said, despite the strong rushing performance for the two – the first time since that two EMU players rushed for over 100 yards in the same game since Bronson Hill (24 carries, 117 yards, one touchdown) and Brumfield (15 carries, 148 yards, two touchdowns) did it against Western Michigan on Nov. 9, 2013 – the offense was business as usual for the Eagles.
“I didn’t think it was anything special – we executed our offense,” he said. “Reggie was making good decisions on the zone read. I thought Coach DeBoer did a great job of mixing up his calls.”
Kevin Johnson made 13 tackles for Eastern. Great Ibe added 11.
Drew Hare started for NIU (6-2, 3-1, MAC). He completed 8-of-14 passes for 44 yards. Hare also rushed 13 times for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Joel Bouagnon (10 carries, 85 yards) and Cameron Stingily (11 carries, 63 yards) each scored a touchdown for the Huskies on the ground.
“We didn’t panic, we went back to the little things,” Carey said. “Credit to Eastern, they played great. And also a ton of credit to our players, they battled throughout and pulled out the win.”
Hare started the scoring for the Huskies on their first drive when he busted a 78-yard run, capping a three play 83-yard drive.
Eastern answered on the following drive – Brumfield punched it in from four yards out, finishing a 10-play, 80 yard drive.
Brumfield finished the first half with nine carries for 72 yards.
Eastern blocked a NIU 24-yard field goal attempt with 7:51 left in the first quarter – defensive lineman Mike Steals was credited with it.
Stingily only needed one shoe to score NIU’s second touchdown of the first half – from three yards out – at the end of the first quarter, the point after gave the Huskies the 14-7 lead.
Eastern marched down the field in the last 1:35 of the first half, but was held to a 21-yard field goal from Mulder, making the score 14-10 at the half.
Eastern had a chance to score early in the third quarter when it ran a flea flicker – but Bell was intercepted by Dechane Durante at the NIU 10-yard line.
The Eagles forced NIU to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive.
Willie Creaar blocked a 32-yard field goal attempt with 4:27 left in the third quarter – it was the Eagles’ fifth blocked field goal this season and the second in the game.
“It’s awesome,” Creighton said. “You watch games later tonight, you watch games tomorrow and you see how hard or how soft people go after blocking kicks. That’s something you have to believe.”
Neither team scored in the third quarter.
Bell scored on a diving run from three yards out to score the first points for either team since Mulder’s field goal to end the first half. The point after gave the Eagles the 17-14 lead – their first lead of the game – with 14:54 to go in the fourth quarter.
Northern Illinois retook the lead with 11:55 remaining in the fourth – a 24-yard run by Bouagnon. The PAT gave the Huskies a 21-17 lead.
Stingily put it away with a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:26 to go, set up by a 32-yard rush by Hare.
The Eagles did not force any turnovers Saturday. Creighton said that was a missed opportunity to provide added momentum which might have changed the outlook of the game.
“That would have just been a huge explosion of energy and emotion for us,” he said.
The Eagles will conclude their short two-game home stand next Saturday against Central Michigan University.
The Chippewas defeated Ohio University, 20-14 Saturday.
Eastern closed out the 2013 season against Central, losing 42-10 in Mount Pleasant.
Brogan Roback started for the Eagles. He was 14-of-27 for 139 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Dustin Creel caught 10 passes for 109 yards, while Cole Gardner had a receiving touchdown.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho