Following Saturday’s 37-27 win over the University at Buffalo, Eastern Michigan University reached the official halfway point of its season. It hasn’t been the easiest time for coach Chris Creighton, but there are some measurable accomplishments he and his team have made so far.
Changing the culture
Creighton took the reins of a football program that was at rock bottom. Interim coach Stan Parrish did a good job of pulling the team out of the rubble Ron English left it in, but in December there was still a long way to go.
From day one, Creighton said he knew the guys on the team were winners – a far cry from the attitude English showed before losing his job.
“I’m going to treat these guys like men,” Creighton said in December. “I have a six-year old son. I hope he’s out at practice. I hope I don’t have to worry whether my son’s at practice. I’m an intense man, I have a high standard, but I don’t think you need to use profanity to get the best out of guys. I don’t believe that.”
After winning their regular season opener, the Eagles took to the road for four straight games – two against teams in the top-25. Even on paper, it looked like a tall order – Eastern went 0-4 on the road trip.
“Our guys are proud,” Creighton said after the loss to Michigan State University on Sept. 20. “This [big loss] is really hard and I can’t keep them from the whole world – they can sit behind a computer and say what they’re going to say – I would if I could. I’d lock doors and sit with them 24/7. It’s a family – they’ve stuck together.”
Michigan State was ranked no. 9 at the time.
Just watching the team and its demeanor after the big loss to MSU and again two weeks later in the Mid-American Conference opener against Akron University left me with one conclusion: the 2014 team is invested in what Creighton is trying to teach them.
He’s trying to teach them to be winners – not just to win games – and it’s working.
“Things have been awesome,” senior right tackle Lincoln Hansen said at the team’s media day in August. “It’s been a great, I think it’s been 8 1/2 months now since [Creighton was hired]. Things have changed – just look at the stadium – obviously you can see changes. You can see changes in the guys, we act as a family now, compared to the way we were before. It’s just night and day. It feels like a different place.”
Saturday’s win was just a start, but I definitely saw it in the way the players carried themselves and the way Creighton spoke after the game.
“When a lot of people outside of the immediate football family don’t believe in you, it’s a sweet sweet feeling to do what you’re capable of doing,” he said. “Those guys care deeply about this school and this program and each other.”
There’s still quite a long way to go, but 2-4 is a lot better than 0-6.
My Grade: A-
Before the start of the season, it was anyone’s guess as to who would be starting under center. Sophomore Brogan Roback – who played in nine games for the Eagles last season – was my pick.
Redshirt senior Rob Bolden had just returned home from stops at Louisiana State University and Penn State University. The Orchard Lake, Mich. native hadn’t played a game at quarterback since 2012 and had been transitioned to wide receiver, but never played a down for the Tigers.
Reggie Bell was set to begin his first year on the field for Eastern after redshirting in 2013 while redshirt freshmen Brandon Bossard (safety) and Lemar Harris (receiver) switched to different positions.
“Yeah, [the quarterback competition is] good,” Creighton said in August. “With Rob [Bolden] coming [from LSU], Brandon Bossard has been able to move to safety, which I think is really good for him and for our team. Lemar Harris is giving wide receiver a shot, so we have the three [Bolden, Roback and Bell]. It’s very competitive, it’s made that group better – no question about it. We’re pleased with the way that’s moving.”
Bell ended up starting the opener against Morgan State University and the game against Florida. Roback started at Old Dominion University and Bolden has been the starter since the Michigan State game.
Roback has been on the sidelines since the Old Dominion game with – according to one source – several broken bones in his face. The EMU athletic department has not issued a formal statement on his status, however.
After Bell’s stellar afternoon against Buffalo, there may be a quarterback controversy in the works – but for now, Creighton isn’t saying who the starter might be moving forward.
Bell’s game was better than anything I’ve ever seen from Alex Gillett, Tyler Benz, Roback or Bolden. After calling for the redshirt freshman to be benched earlier this year, I think I can realize that he is the quarterback Creighton had in mind when he named him the starter against Morgan State.
I’m keeping an eye on this because it has been one of the most inconsistent parts of the team this season. How any of the three quarterbacks respond to this win will say a lot about what the rest of the season will probably look like.
My Grade: C
The run game
This is another deep position for the Eagles. Senior Bronson Hill ran for 1,101 yards last season and was expected to have an even better season in 2014. So far, he’s only run for 239 yards on 57 carries. Hill has not scored a touchdown this season.
He had one rush for six yards Saturday.
Senior Ryan Brumfield (42 carries for 174 yards and three touchdowns) and junior Darius Jackson (41 carries for 162 yards and a touchdown) are also seeing consistent playing time.
The three have appeared in each of Eastern’s six games.
“Bronson gets a lot of the attention, but we really feel as though we’ve had three quality backs and I think we’ve seen that,” Creighton said after the Buffalo game. “The Morgan State game Brummy was so light on his feet and it was just a great touchdown when he hurtles the guy – he’s a good player.”
Both Bell and Bolden are also running quite a bit as well.
Bell has run for 250 yards this season – 202 against Buffalo, while Bolden has run for 89 yards on 44 carries.
The one problem with the run game is that it isn’t consistent – and that’s because the offensive line has been banged up.
Redshirt sophomore center Jake Hurcombe has missed most of the season with a knee injury while his replacement – redshirt senior Cam Allison – has been in and out of the last three games with a knee injury.
Redshirt sophomore Andrew Wylie has also missed time with a knee injury, and Hansen (undisclosed) did not play against Michigan State.
If one of the three running backs can find a rhythm or if the offense can find a way to effectively utilize all of them, that part of the offense will be something to watch out for.
For now I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic.
My Grade: C
The defense was my biggest concern going into the season – it still is. The defensive line and linebacker corps led by senior defensive end Pat O’Connor and redshirt junior linebacker Great Ibe, as well as redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Zappone.
The secondary is the weakest factor on the defensive side. As a team the Eagles have only intercepted four passes (Kevin Johnson – two, Jason Beck and DaQuan Pace – one each). The cornerbacks and safeties have consistently been giving receivers a cushion and struggle to play on the ball on a regular basis.
Well, they did until Saturday.
Johnson and Beck each did a much better job of playing on the ball – resulting in their interceptions. The secondary also did a good job of breaking up passes – including one in the end zone.
The secondary is slowly improving, but it's not quite there yet. I saw flashes of brilliance, but then I saw Buffalo score three wide-open passing touchdowns. This is the unit that most needs to “close the gap.”
My Grade: C-
The special teams unit has been the most surprising and exciting part of the games at home, but on the road it’s the scariest.
With two blocked field goals and a blocked punt for a touchdown, the special teams unit is definitely able to quickly change the momentum in Eastern’s favor. The punt coverage unit also gave up a touchdown to Old Dominion and is allowing an average of 17.8 yards per return.
While the Eagles average only 6.2 yards per punt return, they average nearly 20.5 yards per kick return – led by senior receiver Tyler Allen’s 20.4 yard average (19 returns for 387 yards).
The two-footed monster of redshirt sophomore Austin Barnes and redshirt senior Owen Dubiel are averaging 43.4 yards per punt – placing 15-of-46 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line.
Barnes (spleen) has missed the last two games.
Dylan Mulder is 3-of-5 in field goal attempts this year with a long of 43 yards.
If the punt coverage and punt return teams can improve on their overall performance, Eastern’s special teams will definitely make the game a lot shorter for the defense.
My Grade: B-
At this point, I don’t see the Eagles winning more than four games this season. Next week’s game at the University of Massachusetts – a team that has won one game in the last 12 months – is one I definitely anticipate Eastern to win. I also think the game against Western Michigan could go either way at this point.
But that’s okay.
Nobody expected Creighton to win 10 games in his first season and if they did, they are not realistic. This team still has a lot of holes to fill in English’s wake.
The most important result to come from the second half of the season needs to be the team learning how to be winners – not winning a lot of games. Once that mindset is reached, the wins will come.
Team Grade: C plus
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho