Instead of taking five things away from Eastern Michigan’s 52-16 loss Friday to the University of Toledo – because in all honesty there isn’t much to say that I haven’t already said at some point this season – I’m going to share my five takeaways from the team's 2-10 season in this, my final official column with the Echo.
The Creighton Factor
Eastern coach Chris Creighton – despite the record he finished with – did in one year what Ron English couldn’t do in just over three plus seasons. He changed the culture in the locker room and from what I saw on the field in the second half of all 12 games, he cultivated a team that actually played for 60 minutes.
All season, Creighton instilled his “E60” or “E-Tough” or whatever the interchangeable slogan was that he used each week and while six of the games were definite blowouts, I saw something from the guys that showed me there was still a spark. I didn’t see that at all in the final year and a half of English’s reign.
I said this at the halfway point and I’ll say it again – Creighton and his staff still have a tremendous amount of work to do and catchy slogans are only going to do so much. Recruiting a good group of guys – their guys – are going to make the real difference. English’s recruiting left a lot to be desired and to be blunt, I think we all saw the product that created. I’m confident that the team that starts next season will be a completely different one than what finished this season – especially losing 18 seniors.
All three quarterbacks on EMU’s roster saw playing time this season – with Reggie Bell getting the majority of the playing time. Rob Bolden has no more eligibility to use and Brogan Roback will have a lot to do to earn the starting job next season. Everything I’ve seen tells me that Reggie Bell should be the starter moving forward – unless he regresses during the offseason.
Bell finished the season having played in 10 games – starting seven. He completed 105-of-184 passes for 1,297 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Bell also rushed for 562 yards and four scores. Those statistics are impressive for a redshirt freshman with an offensive line that to put it nicely – struggled for most of the season.
Roback played in three games – starting against Old Dominion University on Oct. 13. He missed several games with broken bones in his face. He was 21-of-41 for 125 yards. He did not throw any touchdown passes or interceptions.
One of the biggest letdowns this season for me was the defense. Players like defensive lineman Pat O’Connor (64 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks), Anthony Zappone (90 tackles, 9 TFL and a sack), Great Ibe (133 tackles, 11 TFL, 0.5 sacks) and Pudge Cotton (51 tackles, 3.5 TFL) had strong seasons individually, but as a unit the defense allowed 40.9 points per game, 262 first downs, 2,974 rushing yards, 3,298 passing yards and 61 touchdowns (34 rushing, 27 passing).
I singled out the secondary as being the weakest link on many occasions this season and I stand by that assessment.
Giving up big plays is a problem for the defense as a whole – the defensive line and linebackers allowing the quarterback to have time in the pocket, or providing a hole for a running back to run through is an issue, but the way I see it – a good secondary is still able to make plays. I didn’t see that consistently this season.
Shoring up the secondary should be Creighton and Co.’s second priority this offseason after improving the offensive line.
Running the ball
If the defense is my biggest letdown, the ground game is what left me shaking my head at the end of the season.
Going in, Bronson Hill looked to be the clear-cut starter at running back. As with the quarterbacks, Creighton said at the beginning of the season and reiterated throughout the year that he felt there were three strong players at the position.
For most of the season, Hill was a non-factor. He finished with 85 carries for 351 yards – with no rushing touchdowns. He also caught nine passes for 143 yards and two scores.
This comes a year removed from a season in which he rushed for a team-best 905 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ryan Brumfield was the real story for EMU at the running back position - rushing 95 times for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
Bell was the offense in the air and on the ground, so the running back corps of Hill, Brumfield and Darius Jackson was really utilized as a change of pace for the redshirt freshman.
If Bell is the starter moving forward, I don’t really know what will happen to Jackson and the six other running backs who are left on the roster.
Going to games
The biggest problem for this football team has absolutely nothing to do with who is on the field and what they’re doing – it has everything to do with the people who aren’t there to see it.
Attendance has been a hotly contested issue for some time – not only with football, but frankly the other 20 Division I sports at Eastern.
Average paid attendance this season came in at just over 15,025 for the team’s five home games – I’d be surprised if 15,025 different people came to see all five games combined.
Say what you will about the time of the games, or the ability for commuter students to stream them from home or the even more likely instance of nobody wanting to see a sub-par program week in and week out – but I think that’s more of a problem than anything that’s plagued this team.
If a team turns around and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen?
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanSports