2015 CFB Preview – Eastern Michigan

Eastern Michigan
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The program was in desperate need of a new vision and something positive.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

Chris Creighton came in with a new attitude and a new voice for an Eastern Michigan program that’s been among the worst in college football for a long, long, long time, and …

2-10 with blowout loss after blowout loss, just like the 2013 season, and the 2012 season, and the 2010 season for a program that hasn’t seen a winning record since 1995.

So why will this year be any different? Why will 2015 be the year that finally changes things up in a MAC that should be stronger than it was last season? Why will this be the season that the Eagles aren’t among the bottom-feeders in just about every main area? Why and how can EMU football be something that matters and something that challenge some of the better teams in the league – and maybe even come up with a few wins?

Creighton can coach, and while last season was his first losing campaign in 18 years of being a head man, there were some occasional signs of life.

However, it’s going to take a while. You don’t lose as long as Eastern Michigan has and then grow into a MAC superpower in one season, but it would be nice if there were a few more Buffalo, NIU and Ball State games – beating the Bulls in the lone FBS win of the season, and pushing the Huskies and Cardinals hard – and fewer complete and utter wipeouts.

Seven starters are back on offense and eight are back on D, but more importantly, the young depth has to start to be developed. There have to be more options and there must be more good position battles – but that takes time.

Creighton needs to be patient, but he and his staff mostly have to create a better identity. EMU can’t be the automatic win on everyone’s schedule, and coming up with something to build on is a must.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense didn’t go anywhere scoring more than 17 points just three times and being held to seven points or fewer five times. The running game didn’t work and the passing attack didn’t get things moving. Other than that, things were great. There’s just enough talent returning to hope for more with Reginald Bell and Brogan Roback returning at quarterback and with receivers Dustin Creel and Darius Jackson returning. Losing TE Tyreese Russell is a problem, and not having the backfield tandem of Ryan Brumfield and Bronson Hill hurts, but Bell led the team in rushing and Jackson is the leading returning running back, even though he was used as a receiver. Three starters are gone on the line.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: Nothing worked. Among the worst defenses in the nation in every major category, the run defense was bad, the pass D worse, and it was a rough year throughout. Leading tackler, LB Great Ibe, leads a veteran defense with four of the top five tacklers returning. Pat O’Conner is one of the MAC’s best interior pass rushers, leading a line with three starters returning, and the linebacking corps should be solid with everyone back. The secondary is the one concern with safeties Kevin Johnson and Pudge Cotton gone, but corners DaQuan Pace and Willie Creear back.

What to watch for on offense: Can the Eagles get anything out of the running game? QB Reginald Ball led the team with just 562 rushing yards and four scores, and the rest of the team came up with fewer than 1,100 yards and five touchdowns. It’s hard to establish anything offensively when an offense can’t control the ball and the clock, and EMU put itself in too many tough situations by not being able to run the ball on first down. The Eagles failed to crack the 100-yard rushing mark seven times, and its two best running games – Morgan State and Buffalo – just so happened to be the two wins. Making things worse, seven of the nine rushing touchdowns came in those two games, and the other two scores came in the third-best rushing day of the season – a good fight against NIU.

What to watch for on defense: It’s hard to be disruptive and nasty defensively when you’re not generating any pressure. EMU’s 2013 defense might have stunk, but at least it got to the quarterback. Last year the Eagles came up with just 12 sacks with nine of them coming in the first six games, and there weren’t nearly enough tackles for loss. Offenses got way too comfortable and weren’t pressured or pushed in any way. With interior pass rusher Pat O’Conner leading a veteran line, that could change.

The team will be far better if … the offense stopped giving the ball away. 2008 was the last time Eastern Michigan finished a season on the plus side in turnover margin, but last season the mistakes went to a whole other level with a whopping 30 giveaways and finishing the season a disastrous -18. It didn’t help to give the ball up 11 times in the two losses to Florida and Michigan State, but turnovers were a problem throughout the season that didn’t get any better, finishing off going -8 over the last three games. The team isn’t good enough to not own the turnover battle.

The schedule: There are never any gimmes when it comes to EMU, but with three home games in the first four, a hot start is a must. The Eagles have to beat Old Dominion and Army, and beating Ball State would be huge.
– And then comes the payback with three road games in four weeks going to LSU, Toledo and Northern Illinois. That could be as ugly a three-game run score-wise – with Akron coming after LSU – as any team will deal with.
– The East is far softer than the West, and there aren’t any true killers. Even so, facing Akron, UMass and Miami University in interconference play should help.
– The Eagles leave the state of Michigan just once – Miami University – from October 24th on.
– WATCH OUT FOR … the season finale at Central Michigan. EMU gets a week off to prepare for the last game. CMU might get tagged if it’s not prepared and focused.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Reginald Bell. The team is still going to be looking at options to come up with the best quarterback possible to finally get the offense moving, but Bell did everything he could to carry the woeful attack throughout last year and should be the main man again. He led the team in rushing and was decent at times getting the passing game going, and at the very least he’s a decent place for the offense to start.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Great Ibe. Defensive tackle Pat O’Conner might be the most important player on defense considering what he does for the inside of a line that needs to start getting to the quarterback more and has to be better at stopping the run, but Ibe is the one who cleans everything up. Ibe got in on everything making 132 stops and was one of the key players at getting behind the line. The linebacking corps returns intact, but it’ll all work around Ibe at the Buck position.

Key player to a successful season: Senior RB Darius Jackson, or some running back option to take the heat off the quarterbacks. The O line might not provide much help with three starters gone from a group that didn’t do nearly enough last year, but the running backs didn’t do much of anything, either, with Bronson Hill and Ryan Brumfield combining for just 699 yards and not going anywhere. The veteran Jackson showed a little bit of flash at times when he got his chances, and while he might not be the No. 1 back to feature, he and the rest of the runners have to produce.

The season will be a success if … the Eagles win four games. They have to show something positive, and while it’s hard to think of four wins as anything successful, but that would double the win total. It’s not going to be easy considering EMU might be the underdog in every game, but there aren’t too many games that are forget-about-it weekends. This team has to be able to hang with the Akrons and Miami Universities of the world.

Key game: Sept. 5 vs. Old Dominion. It’s not like ODU was OSU last season, and Eastern Michigan’s offense couldn’t move the ball coming up with just a field goal in a 17-3 loss in mid-September. Teams like EMU need something positive to build on and provide something, anything to get excited about, and with the Monarchs coming to Ypsilanti, there’s a chance to start out big.

2014 Fun Stats:
– First Quarter Scoring: Opponents 176 – Eastern Michigan 37
– Fumbles: Eastern Michigan 29 (lost 19) – Opponents 14 (lost 6)
– Time of Possession: Opponents 33:29 – Eastern Michigan 26:31

Players You Need To Know

1. LB Great Ibe, Sr.
The team’s leading tackler had plenty of chances, and he came up with a huge statistical year with 132 tackles and 11 tackles. At 6-0 and 230 pounds he’s built for the inside, making a whopping 21 tackles against UMass and coming up with ten tackles or more in every game but three. The former transfer from Concordia University led the NAIA with 32.5 tackles for loss as a defensive end, but he found his home as a hybrid linebacker at the Buck. Able to do a little of everything, he’s the one the defense funnels around.

2. DT Pat O’Conner, Sr.
The All-MAC star and leader of the defense came up with a tremendous season for a defense that had a hard time finding things to go right. The 6-4, 274-pound tackle made 64 tackles with 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss as one of the team’s few disruptive forces. Able to play tackle or as a big end, he’d be ideal as a 3-4 end, but he spent last year in the interior getting off the ball in a hurry and doing a great job of getting behind the line, coming up with two sacks against both Old Dominion and Buffalo as part of his big year.

3. LB Anthony Zappone, Jr.
The main in the middle, the 6-2, 250-pound Zappone has the right build for the position, coming up with 90 tackles despite missing a game hurt. He might not have been dynamic like Great Ibe, but he came up with ten tackles or more four times with 13 against Buffalo. Decent in pass coverage and getting into the backfield, he came up with a sack, nine tackles for loss and three broken up passes, but he needs to make more impact plays and not as many down the field.

4. QB Reginald Bell, Soph.
The offense tried out a few different options at quarterback, but Bell turned out to be the most effective completing 57% of his passes with a team-leading 1,297 yards and nine touchdowns with six picks, and led the team with 562 rushing yards and four scores. The 6-3, 184-pound dual-threat option out of Los Angeles never got into a groove, but he showed off his potential at times with a 36-of-49 day for 409 yards and three scores, and 101 rushing yards, in the loss to Ball State. Great on the move, he was the reason for the win over Buffalo with 202 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries. He needs to take over and be the star of the attack – he needs to be the consistent and driving force for the offense.

5. S Jason Beck, Soph.
One of the team’s leading tacklers, the 6-1, 195-pound safety came up with a good true freshman season with 86 tackles including 12 against Central Michigan and Ball State. Quick, he should grow into more of a producer when the ball is in the air after coming up with just one pick – he has the skills to do far more. A great get for the program, he has all-star potential and should be one of the team’s top all-around defenders for the next few years.

6. LB Ike Spearman, Jr.
Out all of last year hurt with a leg injury suffered in training camp, the 6-0, 226-pound linebacker should come back and be a big part of a defense that desperately needs his athleticism and hitting ability. 2013’s star strongside defender came up with 82 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and two picks, coming up with back-to-back ten tackle games against Army and Ohio, and with 13 stops in the win over Western Michigan – but that was two years ago. When he’s right, he’s active enough and quick enough to be one of the team’s leading tacklers again.

7. LB Hunter Matt, Sr.
More of star special teamer than a playmaking linebacker, he’s still a key linebacker on the strongside making 49 tackles with ten in the opener against Morgan State. A good, sound veteran, he came up with 55 tackles as a sophomore but took a bit of a backseat last year. With his experience and his 6-0 and 241-pound size, he should be more productive and should be more of a factor behind the line.

8. OG Andrew Wylie, Jr.
A tackle or a guard, he worked more on the inside last year finishing up at right guard. The best player on the line with 6-6, 320-pound size and good experience to go along with the versatility, he was a surprise two years ago and needs to be the main man to work around this year. Better for the interior, he doesn’t have great feet in pass protection, but he’s a decent athlete who can hit a bit.

8. WR Dustin Creel, Sr.
The offense needs the 6-2, 203-pound veteran leading wide receiver to become more dangerous. He has the size to go along with decent speed, but he only caught 24 passes for 228 yards and didn’t score. Non-existent for most of the season, he came up with just nine catches over the first ten games before cranking up 14 grabs for 152 yards against Ball State. It’s his time to be the go-to guy for the receiving call.

10. QB Brogan Roback, Jr.
By far the best recruit of the 2013 class, he was a coup for the program with 6-3, 190-pound size and an excellent arm. He got his feet wet early on over the first part of his first season, and then got the full-time gig to himself to try turning the season around. He struggled a bit with his accuracy, completing just 42% of his passes, but he showed glimpses of potential greatness throwing for 209 yards and two touchdowns against Toledo and threw well in the season finale against Central Michigan. However, missed most of last year hurt after completing 21-of-41 passes for 125 yards in three games. The talent is there, though, to fight for the job again.

Head Coach: Chris Creighton
2nd year: 2-10
18th year overall: 141-56
Sept. 5 Old Dominion
Sept. 12 at Wyoming
Sept. 19 Ball State
Sept. 26 Army
Oct. 3 at LSU
Oct. 10 Akron
Oct. 17 at Toledo
Oct. 24 at Northern Illinois
Oct. 29 Western Mich
Nov. 7 at Miami Univ.
Nov. 14 Massachusetts
Nov. 27 at Central Michigan
Ten Best EMU Players
1. LB Great Ibe, Sr.
2. DT Pat O’Conner, Sr.
3. LB Anthony Zappone, Jr.
4. QB Reginald Bell, Soph.
5. S Jason Beck, Soph.
6. LB Ike Spearman, Jr.
7. LB Hunter Matt, Sr.
8. OG Andrew Wylie, Jr.
9. WR Dustin Creel, Sr.
10. WR Dustin Creel, Sr.