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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 92: Eastern Michigan

Just think of all the great lines that are no longer valid in everyday conversation – if you’re talking about Eastern Michigan in everyday conversation, that is, and if you are, let’s talk daily. No longer can you use this gem: Eastern Michigan can win 10 games, but only if you give the Eagles five years. No longer usable. Or this: Eastern Michigan hasn’t finished above .500 in MAC play since two years before the league added Northern Illinois. Or even this one: The last time E.M.U. won six games, all the way back in 1995, George W. Bush was in his first term as the Governor of Texas. I guess I’ll just throw these on the trash heap. Forget conference expansion, Florida State to the Big 12, New Mexico State to the F.C.S., Nebraska to the Big Ten and so on; the most amazing thing to happen in college football over the last 12 months was Eastern Michigan winning six games. And this fact won’t stop being amazing until Ron English and E.M.U. do it again.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Ypsilanti, Mich.

Nickname
Eagles

Returning starters
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 108

2011 record
(6-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 77

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    at Ball St.
  • Sept. 8
    Illinois St.
  • Sept. 15
    at Purdue
  • Sept. 22
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 6
    Kent St.
  • Oct. 13
    Toledo
  • Oct. 20
    Army
  • Oct. 27
    at Bowling Green
  • Nov. 1
    at Ohio
  • Nov. 10
    Central Mich.
  • Nov. 17
    at Western Mich.
  • Nov. 23
    Northern Illinois

Last year’s prediction

Hey, the Eagles are getting better. Not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but a little better each day – not much better each day, just a little better. I even think E.M.U. can get to four wins, which would represent another step forward for the program. Forget that two of those wins, if four is the final total, will come against a pair of F.C.S. opponents. Is it ridiculous to get behind a team that has won two games in two years? Yeah, probably. The schedule still looks smooth, however, and the offense has the pieces to make a nice improvement over the last two seasons. The defense remains the biggest issue, and will keep this team from doing anything more than just make a game or two improvement in the win column, but I do see signs of life in Ypsilanti.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The defensive turnaround was positively jaw-dropping. One year after allowing 527 points, the most in program history, E.M.U. gave up 292 points and finished 34th nationally in yards allowed per game. Let this serve as another piece of evidence: when starting from scratch, focus first on defense before addressing the offensive side of the ball. While the offense made a slight climb – scoring about an additional field goal per game than in 2010 – it was this defense that propelled E.M.U. to the program’s finest season since 1995, a six-win finish complete with four wins in MAC play. While two F.C.S. victories in September prevented E.M.U. from being considered for postseason play, you have to search far and wide to find anything to nitpick over when considering the Eagles’ long-awaited breakthrough. Six wins? E.M.U. had won five over the previous three seasons combined and a grand total of 26 games over the previous decade. Alabama’s been a power for generations; L.S.U. wins 10 games every year; Oregon’s a rising presence from coast to coast; Boise State is now a permanent part of the title conversation. These things happen every year. E.M.U. winning six games was one of the few truly surprising things to occur during college football’s 2011 season.

High point A 14-10 win over Western Michigan on Oct. 22. Outside of the Broncos, E.M.U. wouldn’t beat a team with a pulse all year. But this win, which moved the Eagles to 5-3 heading into November, did cause the rest of the MAC to stand up and take notice.

Low point An inability to seal the deal in November. The Eagles had no chance against Michigan and Penn State during non-conference play, as expected, and suffered a thrashing at the hands of Toledo on the second Saturday of October. But needing only one additional win to seal a bowl trip over the year’s final month, E.M.U. suffered a 33-31 loss to Ball State, a 28-22 loss at Kent State and an 18-12 loss to Northern Illinois. The most painful? Try Ball State: the Cardinals nailed a 44-yard field goal with nine seconds left for the win.

Tidbit Eastern Michigan’s 30-17 win over Buffalo on Nov. 12 gave the Eagles their widest margin of victory in MAC play since a 19-2 win over Western Michigan on Oct. 27, 2007. In fact, E.M.U. has won only five conference games by 13 or more points since 2000: by 13 points over Buffalo last fall, by 17 points over W.M.U. in 2007, by 24 points over the Bulls in 2005, by 24 points over Ball State in 2003 and by 16 points over Central Michigan in 2000.

Tidbit (rushing edition) Eastern Michigan has rushed for at least 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons for only the second time in school history. In 2010, the Eagles gained 2,080 yards on 511 carries; the average of 173.3 yards per game ranked second in the MAC. Last season, Eastern Michigan’s 575 carries and 2,620 yards were the second-most in school history. The last time E.M.U. cracked the 2,000-yard mark in successive years was from 1986-87. The latter season, 1987, was also the last – and only – time E.M.U. has reached postseason play.

Tidbit (home games edition) This fall, E.M.U. will play six games at home for the first time since 2003. The Eagles hosted six teams in both 2002 and 2003, winning three games each year, and played six home games in 2004 – with an asterisk. Five of the home games were played in Ypsilanti in 2004; the sixth, against Central Michigan, was considered a home game for the Eagles but was played in Detroit’s Ford Field. No matter: E.M.U. won a wild one, beating the Chippewas, 61-58, in quadruple overtime.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 QB Charlie Batch (Pittsburgh), DT Jason Jones (Seattle), OG T.J. Lang (Green Bay), S Latarrius Thomas (Indianapolis), WR Kevin Walter (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Active baseball players whose last name ends in -i
1. 1B Jason Giambi, Colorado.
2. 2B Steve Lombardozzi, Washington.
3. SP Hector Noesi, Seattle.
4. C Francisco Cervelli, New York Yankees.
5. C Blake Lalli, Chicago Cubs.

Coaching

Ron English (California ’90), 8-28 after three seasons with the Eagles. Let’s do the math: English was 2-22 after two seasons with the Eagles. To say that last fall was wildly unexpected would be an understatement. With the six-win finish, English begins to put some distance between himself and his sluggish start at E.M.U., when he went winless in 2009 before winning two games a year later. Of course, it’s not as if English inherited a juggernaut; rather, he inherited one of the worst program in college football. Even after breaking through last fall, English has an enormous amount of work ahead of him to merely bring this program into the conference title conversation. English is most well-known for his five-year stint under Lloyd Carr at Michigan, first as the secondary coach (2003-5) before being promoted to defensive coordinator (2006-7). His two seasons as coordinator saw the Wolverines rank among the best in the F.B.S. at stopping the run, but he drew criticism for his unit’s struggles against less-prototypical offenses like the spread. Fired as coordinator after the university hired Rich Rodriguez to replace Carr, English interviewed for the head coach spot at Louisville – a position that went to Tulsa’s Steve Kragthorpe – before eventually accepting the defensive coordinator position under Kragthorpe with the Cardinals. His other college coaching experience includes two separate stints at Arizona State (1994-95, 1998-2002) and two seasons at San Diego State (1996-97). This extensive defensive background, combined with his familiarity with the state, made English the obvious choice to take over the E.M.U. program. He had a poor start, but we expected nothing less. Now that he’s won six games once, fans will expect English to do it again in 2012.

Players to watch

Bless their hearts: the Eagles know exactly what they’re going to do on offense. Better yet: the rest of the MAC knows what the Eagles are going to do on offense. This knowledge has done little to stem Eastern Michigan’s full-bore, pedal-to-the-metal running game from ranking among the most successful in a league loaded with powerful running teams; E.M.U. finished third in the MAC and 14th nationally in rushing last fall, joining Temple as the only two teams in the conference to feature three players who averaged 50 or more rushing yards per game. The Eagles are delightfully physical.

And don’t go expecting this offense to change. The Eagles will continue to butter their bread with the running game, as they did a year ago. But more so than any point under English, E.M.U. will be able to draw upon an aerial attack capable of keeping that eighth and ninth defender out of the box. This will be a major step forward for an offense that despite a recent climb remains a bit too unbalanced to match up with the MAC’s best – Northern Illinois, Toledo, Ohio and Western Michigan.

The reason for optimism stems from the continued growth of quarterback Alex Gillett and a handful of talented returning receivers. Gillett, a senior, is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the MAC: he’s made 27 career starts, moving into the lineup for the final three games of his freshman season and starting every game over the last two years. Gillett might have thrown for only 1,504 yards as a junior, but that total is misleading on two fronts. For starters, Gillett did a great job limiting his turnovers, tossing six few interceptions than as a sophomore.

In addition, Gillett stands as the Eagles’ most consistent running threat. He’s led E.M.U. in rushing in each of the last two years, gaining 736 yards on 169 carries a season ago, and has rushed for 1,986 yards over his first three years. Clearly, Gillett can run the ball as well as any quarterback in the MAC and can protect the football on passing downs; next, he needs to help make this offense more two-dimensional.

Not to the tune of 3,000 yards, or even 2,500 yards, or even 2,000 yards, for that matter. But with Gillett a senior and several receivers primed to take the next step forward, E.M.U. can offer up a different look to MAC defenses. The receiver corps is led by junior Nick Olds (team-leading 24 receptions for 342 yards), with sophomores Julius Shelby and Demarius Reed (11 catches for 118 yards) the early favorites to join him in the starting lineup. Youth abounds at the position, so look for a few yet-unknown receivers – like Jay Jones, Matt Brown, Kevin Wheeler, Donald Scott and others – to move into larger roles as the year progresses. E.M.U. also has one of the MAC’s best tight ends in senior Garrett Hoskins (22 for 328); he was a third-team all-MAC pick last fall.

Even without would-be senior Dominique White, who will spend his final season of college eligibility outside of Ypsilanti, E.M.U. has a wealth of options at its disposal at running back. This is a grouping paced by the duo of senior Dominique Sherrer (572 yards) and junior Javonti Greene (667 yards); behind this top pair lie sophomores Ryan Brumfield and Bronson Hill; behind this pair lie even more options, even if E.M.U. won’t go more than four deep at the position. Sherrer is a very intriguing option as the Eagles’ lead back: he finished fourth on the team in rushing despite playing in only six games – averaging 95.3 yards per game when healthy. With Gillett also doing work on the ground, you can see why E.M.U. has morphed into one of the MAC’s best in moving the ball between the tackles.

The offensive line will be the best of English’s tenure, though that doesn’t quite do this quintet justice. This group does an outstanding job opening up lanes in the running game, even if the starting five could do a slightly better job protecting the quarterback on passing downs – though Gillett’s propensity to tuck the ball down and run does lead to more sacks from the opposition. E.M.U. returns four starters, needing only to replace right guard Bridger Buche. Three are seniors: left tackle Korey Neal, left guard Corey Watman and center Andrew Sorgatz.

The fourth returning starter, right tackle Lincoln Hansen, is a sophomore – he’ll be better in his second season in the lineup. And the Eagles can call on starting experience as they search for Buche’s replacement. The starter during the spring, sophomore Campbell Allison, started two games at left guard and five at right tackle in 2011. Another option, sophomore Scott MacLeod, made two starts at left tackle and another pair at right guard. It’s a very nice offensive front with one thing in common: beef. The average weight of the starting five is 303.2 pounds. The five backups average 310.0 pounds. Don’t get in their way on first down or in line at the buffet.

Of all the great strides taken by last year’s defense, none was more spectacular than E.M.U.’s 180-degree turn in stopping the run. On average, the Eagles allowed 230.8 yards per game on the ground in 2010; in the season finale, E.M.U. gave up 544 yards rushing to Northern Illinois. Last fall, the defense held nine opponents to 139 yards rushing or less, including Penn State and Western Michigan, and only twice allowed more than 231 yards – against Alabama and Toledo. Nothing embarrassing about that.

But E.M.U. needs to maintain this pace in 2012, and do so with three lost starters along the defensive line. One, end Brad Ohrman, led the Eagles in tackles for loss and sacks, earning second-team all-MAC honors. The other pair, Brandon Slater and Jabar Westerman, combined to make 19 starts along the interior of the line – Slater started every game at nose tackle. To compensate for these losses, E.M.U. needs a big senior season from rush end Andy Mulumba and solid play along the interior from a handful of linemen moving from reserve status into substantial roles.

Mulumba (51 tackles, 7.5 for loss), a senior, is the Eagles’ next all-MAC defensive lineman. But he’ll need to continue his growth without Slater occupying blockers along the interior and Ohrman demanding attention on the opposite side; this is easier said than done. E.M.U. will give junior Matt Price, a little-used reserve in 2011, every chance to join Mulumba in the starting lineup at end. JUCO transfer Cy Maughmer will take over for Slater at nose tackle while senior Devin Henderson, a former JUCO transfer, steps into the starting lineup at tackle. I imagine that Henderson, at 319 pounds, could move over to nose tackle once junior Kalonji Kashama (28 tackles, 3.5 for loss) returns to action.

Is there reason to worry about this defensive line? Yes. If the run defense takes a step back – even if not all the way back to the 2010 level – E.M.U. cannot be considered a viable challenger to MAC West frontrunners Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo. And even with Mulumba holding down the fort at end, there are questions revolving around the replacements’ ability to duplicate the level of play lost when Slater, Ohrman and Westerman exhausted their eligibility.

E.M.U. should hope that the line – especially the interior – can do their part and occupy blockers. That’s because the Eagles’ linebacker corps is one of the better groups in the MAC: experienced, talented and productive, this starting trio can make plays. It’s a group led by senior weak side linebacker Justin Cudworth (83 tackles, 8.5 for loss), last year’s leading tackler. Cudworth is also capable of disrupting plays in the backfield; when the defense lines him up over Mulumba, E.M.U. can force opposing offensive tackles into a rock-and-a-hard-place sort of conundrum. Seniors Bryan Pali (47 tackles) and Blake Poole (44 tackles) return on the strong side after sharing time in the starting lineup a season ago. And in the middle, junior Colin Weingrad (34 tackles, 2.5 for loss) will take on a permanent starting role with the departure of Marcus English.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary Let’s say that E.M.U. remains stout against the run despite the changing cast of characters along the defensive line. If that does occur – and it’s not so out of the realm of possibility that it does – the Eagles will need to button up against the pass. Think of the MAC games that will decide E.M.U.’s bowl quest: Ball State, Toledo, Bowling Green, Ohio and Western Michigan, to name a few. These teams can throw the ball extremely well, some more than others, and the secondary will be placed on red alert if these teams need to turn to the pass in order to move the ball effectively.

The Eagles’ biggest concerns lie at safety, where defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Phil Snow must replace two underrated starters in Latarrius Thomas and Willie Williams. It won’t be a smooth transition. Even if sophomore Kevin Johnson (15 tackles) backed up Thomas at free safety last fall, he’ll undergo a baptism by fire in the starting lineup – Ball State, Purdue and Michigan State before the end of September. The Eagles will also turn strong safety over to promising sophomore Pudge Cotton, a strong recruit for E.M.U. last winter, but as with Johnson, Cotton’s going to need to hit the ground running. The Eagles have a capable swing reserve in junior Alex Bellfy, but you can see why English is a little concerned about his team’s safety play heading into the summer.

Those fears dissipate as you move outside to cornerback. E.M.U.’s starting pair can match up with any duo in the MAC: junior Marlon Pollard (54 tackles) might develop into one of the conference’s best, if he’s not there already, and senior Marcell Rose is a solid starter in this league. Pollard, who transferred into Ypsilanti from U.C.L.A., was a third-team all-MAC pick in 2011. Depth at cornerback comes from junior Ja’Ron Gillespie and sophomores Dominique Rouse and Darius Scott.

Game(s) to watch

Eastern Michigan does get a few key swing games at home. This list includes Kent State – even if the Golden Flashes are in the East – Army and Central Michigan. A sweep of these games is mandatory if E.M.U. hopes to gain that elusive bowl berth. On the other hand, E.M.U. must travel to Ball State and Bowling Green, two programs on roughly the same plane: hovering around four to seven wins, perhaps more in Bowling Green’s case, and needing every winnable game it can get. In the Eagles’ case, you’d rather get Toledo and Northern Illinois on the road and the Falcons and Cardinals at home.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell One of the historically inept programs in college football doesn’t turn the corner in 12 games. Not to say that Eastern Michigan’s process only began last September: English had been building to that point since his arrival in 2009, and last year’s six-win finish was a culmination of sorts for all the hard work put in by the staff and this team. But the process isn’t over yet – not even close. E.M.U. has much in its corner: a senior quarterback, a rough-and-tumble offensive line, a power running game; a nice linebacker corps, a strong cornerback pairing and one of the best defensive ends in the MAC. But to say that the Eagles will simply continue this climb unabated, going from zero wins to two to six to more, ignores the obstacles still standing in this team’s way. There’s a schedule that is troublesome on two counts: one, in its overall strength, and two, in the fact that E.M.U. will no longer sneak up on the opposition. There’s an offense that may be able to throw the ball with more consistency, but one that remains a bit too one-dimensional to run with the top three in the MAC West. There’s the fact that this defense faces daunting gaps up front and at safety; it was the unbelievably improved play of the defense that lifted E.M.U. to six wins last fall, and the Eagles can’t afford a step back. Are we looking at a team primed to return to its prior ineptitude? No chance. E.M.U. should win four games, but I don’t think that this team can match last season’s win total. The process continues.

Dream season Eastern Michigan’s climb tackles the next peak. The Eagles move from 6-6 to 8-4, with major wins over the following: Ball State, Purdue, Toledo, Ohio and Western Michigan. E.M.U. finishes second in the MAC West behind Northern Illinois.

Nightmare season It’s not 0-12. And it’s not quite 2-10. But E.M.U.’s slide back to 3-9, with wins over Illinois State, Kent State and Central Michigan, is awfully disappointing for a program hoping for another step forward.

In case you were wondering

Where do Eastern Michigan fans congregate? Not a lot to share here. Do check out the Eagles Nest, Eagle Totem and the message boards at ScoutEasternMichigan.com and MLive.com. As always, let me know of any sites I missed.

Eastern Michigan’s all-name nominee S Pudge Cotton.

Word Count

Through 33 teams 114,059.

Up Next

Who is No. 91? You can’t ignore the defensive slide experienced by tomorrow’s program since 2006. From 1997-2005, this program allowed 22.9 points per game; over the last six years, the program has allowed 30.0 points per game.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    I think Fresno State fits that pretty nearly

  2. Ray says:

    Illinois State is definitely capable of winning at Eastern Michigan early on.

  3. Ezra says:

    “when starting from scratch, focus first on defense before addressing the offensive side of the ball.” Worked for TCU. (of course, it helps to have an evil genius installing a weird scheme that nobody figures out for years to come… )

  4. David W. says:

    Here is another website for where EMU Football fans congregate – https://www.facebook.com/EMUFootball.

    This page is touted as “The “UNOFFICIAL” & comprehensive site for info about Eastern Michigan University Football.”

    BTW – Thanks for the comprehensive write-up. Go Eastern!

  5. Nick Coston says:

    I think Eastern will go 8-4

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