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FINAL SCORE: Eastern Michigan 19, UMass 17
UMass puts a scare into EMU (again), but the Eagles finish strong with a win.
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In a word: *whew*
It took 60 full minutes to get it done, but Eastern Michigan scraped away with a win.
If last year’s 20-13 finish over UMass wasn’t too close for comfort, the second iteration of Chris Creighton vs. Don Brown (or “Dr. Blitz”) ended with a 19-17 final in Eastern’s direction. The Eagles start the season with a 2-1 record with one non-conference event left.
Late in the fourth quarter, UMass silenced Rynearson Stadium’s home crowd when its offense stormed 85 yards over just four plays to take the lead for the first time. Austin Smith, who played the whole game at quarterback with just a 50% completion rate over 26 passes, found Hamze El-Zayat wide-open for a 50-yard throw on the run. El-Zayat dodged a UMass defender after the catch and waltzed in for the go-ahead score with just over a minute remaining.
“Career-wise, it felt good to get my first receiving touchdown here at Eastern,” El-Zayat said after the game, “But moreso, (it) feels good for the game because we ended up winning. That’s all that matters to me.”
As the saying goes, the third turnover’s a charm
The defense, once again, stood tall once again while seeing the field more often than the offense. Eastern’s defense had four takeaways and two turnovers on downs, and forced four punts out of UMass.
EMU’s defense didn’t just have three turnovers in the first half. Those turnovers are how EMU started off on its first three drives of the game.
The first takeaway came on UMass’ first drive of the game. After UMass featured wide receiver and Arizona transfer Anthony Simpson three plays in a row to cross midfield, safety Cameron Smith forced a fumble for Justin Jefferson to recover the ball on EMU’s 32-yard line. The answer from EMU’s offense was just a 5-play, 15-yard drive, and punted it away.
Defensive end Mikah Coleman, who is off to a strong start to the season in his new #11 jersey, applied the pressure to set up EMU’s second takeaway. Coleman beat his block and hit UMass quarterback Carlos Davis as he released the ball downfield. Safety Quentavius Scandrett, who had one interception last year, jumped up and in front of UMass’ receiver to snatch the ball and return it 22 yards to EMU’s 45-yard line.
But, even with excellent field position to give EMU’s offense the ball for its third time, the Eagles only moved the ball 24 yards and settled for a Jesus Gomez field goal — the 17th make of his career.
A field goal is better than having no points at all. But EMU didn’t want three points to be the final response to a drive that began with great field position.
To start up the second quarter, UMass wanted a touchdown right away. Quarterback Carlos Davis’ pass from midfield to his receiver by the goal line was intercepted by EMU cornerback Bennett Walker, the second pick of his new Eagle tenure. Last week at Minnesota, Walker was on the receiving end of a ball that was deflected by linebacker Chase Kline. This time it was all Walker.
Walker didn’t have any tackles in this game, but that was just the first of two interceptions from him on the day. He’d have another interception midway through the fourth quarter.
Said Creighton of his San Diego Mesa C.C. transfer, “(Walker is) somebody that we really wanted. Coach [Munir] Prince did a great job of building a relationship with him when he came over for a visit, knew that he was just a great fit for our program. When he actually got here, we quickly could see that he’s going to have great ball skills and that has definitely shown here in the early going.”
Walker came down with his first interception at the three-yard line, EMU’s worst starting position of the day.
Four straight pass completions (one fly-sweep) and a 15-yard facemask penalty gave Eastern a fresh set of downs on the 45-yard line. Then Jaylon Jackson out-ran the Minutemen defense on a read option handoff for the game’s first touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
Walker’s fourth-quarter interception was nothing short of clutch.
UMass flipped the field on a 61-yard throw to Simpson, who had 101 yards on 4 catches, to get into goal-line territory. On third down, an off-target throw by Davis was plucked by Bennett, who fell backward into the front-right corner of the end zone when the ball came his way.
That drive, which stopped after 6 plays and 72 yards, very well could’ve ended in a short field goal on the very next play, which would’ve tied the game up at 13-all.
Austin Smith struggles
Austin Smith hasn’t had the best start to the year as a passer. Coming into the week, Smith was 28 of 48 passing (58.3%) for 246 yards (5.1 Y/A), 1 TD and 2 INT.
Against UMass, Smith finished 13 of 26 (50%) for 157 yards and 1 TD to even-out his TD-to-INT ratio this year.
Smith started the day off with his first handful of passes going exactly where he wanted them to go. Then the wheels fell off.
Then there was the underthrow to Max Reese that should’ve been intercepted.
Then Smith had a 53-yard touchdown throw to Tanner Knue, but it was erased because of a holding call. His next pass was deflected by UMass’ nose tackle Billy Wooden.
Immediately following Scandrett’s interception, Knue was wide open on a quick route that, again, had touchdown written all over it. Smith’s pass was broken up by the UMass safety who came down and jumped up to tip the ball with his hand.
In the second half, Smith went 1 for 2 in the third quarter (two completions erased by penalties) and 4 of 10 in the fourth, including the 50-yard game-winner.
“I don’t think our passing game has been as productive as we know that it can be,” Creighton said. “We can run the ball, but when we’ve got equal proficiency in both the pass game and the run game, then we can be really dangerous. We have not gotten there yet.”
As a runner, though, there’s still plenty of opportunity to be found with his legs. When the game was tied at 10-10, Smith scrambled out of a pass play and gained 41 yards on the ground to flip the field. The run, coupled with a sideline interference penalty against Brown put EMU in the red zone.
However, instead of six points, EMU settled for three again. EMU’s O-line immediately backed the pack up with chop-block fouls, Smith had another pass deflected by a D-lineman, and his throw to Blake Daniels on 3rd & 19 was on-target but broken up by a UMass defender.
One of the storylines surrounding running back Samson Evans is his touchdown total. His 30 career rushing scores are already the most in school history in terms of just rushing touchdowns, but he’s also second in EMU history in total touchdowns scored behind Gary Patton, who has 31 (1984-87).
Evans’ record-tying touchdown is still on hold after the longest run of his career was ruined last-second via fumble.
Midway through the second quarter, Evans got the ball on a read option play and the offensive line paved a large enough lane for Evans to need just one, small cut to break free from a handful of UMass defenders in the area. By midfield, Evans was off to the races. By the 5-yard line, UMass linebacker Gerrall Johnson knocked the ball out of Evans’ right arm and it rolled out of the bounds through the end zone.
Instead of a 61-yard touchdown run to tie the all-time touchdowns record — not to mention a three-score lead in the game — UMass got the ball back on their own 20-yard line.
“I don’t know if I even talked to him after that,” Creighton said. “I couldn’t see from where I was in terms of ball security. I doubt that it was bad ball security. He may not have known that the guy was there, so he could’ve two-hand covered or even chinned-it even a little more. But it was a great play by that guy. You can kind of see it unfolding. Okay, Samson, he’s slowly catching you, do you know he’s there. Are you going to get into that end zone before he comes? Samson is just a total pro. He’s so serious about it, so he hates the fact that he fumbled the football. I don’t have to ask him or, to be honest with you coach him on that.
“Just overall with ball security, we were fortunate that they didn’t get a pick early on too. When you win the turnover-takeaway ratio, you give yourself a chance to win and that was a big part of the game.”
Evans finished the day as EMU’s rushing leader with 89 yards, but no scores.
TE Andreas Paaske returned to the field after missing the Minnesota game.
Notable players not dressed: DTs Alex Merritt and Ugo Nosike, CB Joshua Scott, DE Mikey Haney, OT Chris Mayo, DE Sterling Miles.
Gomez, who made field goals #17 and #18 of his career, missed his first-ever PAT after the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. He is now 48/49 in that category.
For the third week in a row, Joe Sparacio led EMU’s defense in tackles (14).
LB Chase Kline finished with 11 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 2 QB hurries, and a fumble.
DE Mikah Coleman, with a sack and 2 TFL against UMass, has had one sack in each game so far this year. He’s already at 3 sacks and 5 TFL for the season.
RB Jaylon Jackson had 12 carries for 83 yards (6.9 avg.).
Knue, targeted 8 times, had 3 catches for 25 yards.
P Mitchell Tomasek had seven punts for 321 yards, an average of 45.9 yards per boot. His longest was 61 yards, and three finished inside the 20.
EMU’s offense ran plays at a 37% success rate, UMass finished at 38%.
EMU’s offense was in the 19th percentile in EPA/Play.
EMU’s 4% explosive play rate is, well, not much of an improvement over a 2% explosive play rate in each of the first two games.
EMU averaged 7.1 yards per play on offense (52 plays, 371 yards). UMass’ offense averaged 6.2 yards per play (75-464).
EMU’s offense averaged 8.2 yards per rush (26 att., 231 yards) while UMass’ rush game was limited to a 3.6 average (34-124).