History Made: Eastern Wins First Bowl Game in 35 Years
Potato Bowl Champions. How good does that sound?
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Potato Bowl Final: Eastern Michigan 41, San Jose State 27
It finally happened.
After 35 years of yearning for another victory formation made in December.
Eastern Michigan (9-4 overall, 5-3 MAC), of all teams, won a bowl game. It wasn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill bowl game. They won the bowl game.
It was 35 years ago when this program won its one and only bowl game against San Jose State in the Cal Bowl. The score: 30-27.
Now? On the famous blue turf in Boise, Idaho, EMU celebrates another bowl win over the Spartans of the Bay Area (7-5, 5-3 MW). This time: 41-27.
Slow start turned into 30-point swing
The play that finally got Eastern Michigan on the board midway through the first quarter came off of a touchdown play for the other side. All-Mountain West quarterback Chevan Cordero opened up the game with a 27-yard scramble run for a touchdown to put his team on the board first, then his 8-yard pass on its third drive of the game put the Spartans up 13-0.
On the ensuing PAT kick, EMU’s Sterling Miles blocked his second kick of the year and Tristen Hines scooped the ball up and ran it all the way to the end zone for a 2-point play.
EMU’s offense made its first chunk play of the game with a 58-yard pass from Powell to Dylan Drummond to bring EMU’s offense inside the red zone. Shortly after, Samson Evans muscled in his first rushing score of the day to cut the score to 13-9.
After a quiet first three drives, Darius Lassiter came through with some huge plays on EMU’s fourth drive — the one that gave EMU its first lead of the day. The drive took 13 plays and 96 yards, but it’s ultimately defined by the three plays made by Lassiter: a 45-yard strike that moved the ball from EMU’s 4-yard line to midfield, a 20-yard catch to get into the red zone, then a 1-yard catch at the end for the score.
Luke Cameron, a former walk-on linebacker whose playing time picked up over the course of the season, caught his first-career interception. EMU’s offense took over with great field position, then Evans got his team into the end zone for his second time of the day four plays later.
On the next drive, Powell connected with Lassiter on 28-yard touchdown pass to cap off a 30-0 run through the first half after being down 13.
San Jose State is no stranger to letting games get out of hand, scoreboard-wise. Earlier this year, the Spartans had a 14-0 lead against San Diego State before the Aztecs went on a 38-point run to eventually win 43-27. At Utah State, SJSU saw its early 6-0 lead be wiped by a 21-point run in the first half to ultimately lose 35-31.
EMU’s offense started the second half the same way it began the first: with two straight punts.
The third was much more productive, but not enough to get into the end zone, let alone the red area. Jesus Gomez made a 51-yard field goal to extend EMU’s lead. Two drives later, after an EMU punt and a turnover on downs by San Jose’s offense, Jaylon Jackson saw the end zone with a 31-yard touchdown run. He followed that up with a successful 2-point conversion run to put 41 points on the board for EMU.
Taylor Powell wins Potato Bowl MVP
EMU’s quarterback wanted to make history. That’s what was on his mind leading up to this bowl game, but that was also on his mind 12 months ago when he didn’t know what his future held.
After stops at Missouri and Troy, Powell entered the transfer portal as a graduate student with one year of eligibility remaining. He chose EMU for a lot of reasons. One of which was that he saw this program as a place where he could come in, make a difference, and leave things more positively than what he saw when he came in.
On a Tuesday afternoon up in the mountains, Powell helped make history.
“Who really did well was the O-line,” Powell said after he was voted as the game’s MVP. “Those guys at San Jose State present a lot of looks up front. Secondary, #1 and #22, I talked to them after the game and told them they made my life very tough because they’d show certain coverages then bail out and play something totally different so I had to watch a lot of tape this week.”
Powell finished the game 18 of 30 passing for 298 yards with two touchdowns and a late, non-costly interception.
Joshua Scott: The defensive MVP
The #0 jersey is an earned privilege for players to wear on EMU’s defense. Scott received the honor for the bowl game, then he received (at least) my vote for the game’s MVP.
Joshua Scott let one touchdown get by him to open the game, but he really stepped up after that. If his goal line stop on third down wasn’t big enough for the Eastern visitors to get on their feet, maybe his interception did it.
San Jose’s offense opted for a double-reverse pass from one of its wide receivers to another from midfield. Elijah Cooks wound up and threw the ball deep over the middle to one of his receivers over the middle, covered loosely by Scott. It looked like Scott would’ve overrun his coverage by the time the SJSU receiver looked back to catch the pass, but Scott’s last-second reaction to the pass was right on time. Scott’s right hand got on the ball before the receiver could touch it, and the cornerback caught it as he fell down with both feet in bounds.
“I knew that #4 (Cooks) has thrown a trick-pass play, and when my receiver released I knew it was a fake jet pass,” Scott said after the game. “I just stayed on my man, played my technique, looked back, and the ball came to me. Made the play.”
Scott let a second touchdown get past him for SJSU to have a third-quarter score, but he made another big stop on a sweep play towards the San Jose sideline. The officials needed a minute to figure out the spot of the ball, and ruled the ball carrier inches shy of the first down marker. That brought up fourth down.
San Jose State would’ve punted the ball away from midfield on the following fourth down, but Creighton called a timeout before the snap. The Spartan offense went back on the field to try another fourth-down run play and the ball carrier was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage by both Price and Jose Ramirez.
Neal Neathery’s final game
After 29 years as a college football coach, EMU’s defensive coordinator has decided to hang up the headsets for good. Over the course of his career, he’s spent 20 years working alongside EMU head coach Chris Creighton and this was their seventh season together at Eastern Michigan. They previously coached together at Ottawa, Wabash, and Drake.
“I’ve never had to doubt whether he had my back. Never,” Creighton said. “That’s a lot of seasons. There’s times where things aren’t going well where the defense is great and the offense is not. I just trust him implicitly, he’s got awesome integrity and his loyalty is unmatched… I hope that everybody on Earth ends up having a friend like Neal Neathery has been to me.
“He’s the best football coach I’ve ever met and I’ve ever worked with. I sat in the defensive team meeting yesterday and there’s not a one of those… where I don’t come out saying he’s so good at that. He makes me want to be better.
“I just think in today’s world in college sports it’s pretty rare to have somebody like that.”
A 13-0 deficit obviously isn’t what Neathery wanted to have happen on his final day on Eastern’s sideline, but his unit came through with some important stops as the game went on.
On San Jose’s fourth drive of the day, the Spartans moved the ball all the way down to the goal line. On third and goal from the 5-yard line, Scott made a loud tackle after SJSU’s offense made a 4-yard pass completion to force fourth down. The Spartans elected to go for a run play and Peyton Price was able to bring down the running back for a 3-yard loss and a turnover on downs to end the 11-play, 71-yard drive.
Then, of course, Cameron and Scott had their interceptions in the second quarter.
With two minutes left in the game, senior safety Russell Vaden IV recorded an interception — the fourth of his career — to all but seal things up for the Green and White.
That’s (not?) all, folks
That’s it. There’s no Game 14 to look forward to here, just a bowl trophy to hoist up until next season rolls around.
It’s a huge moment for this program, don’t get me wrong. This is a game that’ll be remembered for the rest of this football team’s collective memory. It’s a season that shouldn’t be forgotten, either.
The 1987 team has been the most popular team on campus for 35 years, and now members of that squad were able to see a new group finally get the bowl win that hasn’t happened since then. It took nine years and five attempts with the leadership of Creighton to finally get the job done, and the group finally did it.
How sweet of a win was this? If you sat through some of the worst years of EMU football (and I do mean the worst), this is an incredibly sweet victory. If you’ve watching this team for five years, you’re probably very relieved. If you’ve been watching this team for 10 years, you might’ve hollered. If you’ve been doing this for 20 years, then there’s a chance you’re finally opening up that bottle of the good scotch to celebrate.
If you’re one who’s waited the full 35 years for another bowl win, then you’re one of the few people who can say they’ve lived long enough to see EMU win a bowl game for a second time.
Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll get to witness EMU’s third bowl win. Wouldn’t that be a sight?
Tomorrow’s the first day of next year: It’s signing day. And EMU’s going to wake up bright and early to celebrate the college football holiday together in Boise as recruits send in their letters of intent to play for EMU next year.
Lots of guys end up signing to play football for Eastern Michigan, and so few ever get the chance to graduate as winners. But now this is a group of winners. This is a group that doesn’t fall ass-backwards into the win column, they’ve gone out and deserved all nine wins it had this year.
The recruits who end up signing tomorrow won’t be trying to turn this program around. This is a team that’s used to going bowling. It’s gone to five bowl games in seven years. Turning the program around at this point would be going the wrong way. Tomorrow’s signees don’t have to tell themselves that it’s up to them to flip the script. Instead, EMU’s signees will have a much different common goal in mind.
Let’s run it back.
My feeling after the game was strange. I'll be honest, I shed a few tears of joy, but it didn't have that mountain top feeling. The way it felt was more like, "this is where we're supposed to be, and this is the new normal". Before this game I had a very strong feeling we were going to win, we had momentum in a way that we haven't in a long time. Let's run it back indeed.
I'd also like to congratulate you sir, on a fine season of work. You are the only independent beat writer who consistently shows up for this team. You know these guys well, but you hold their feet to the fire when it's deserved. I think your question to Coach in the presser about taking players to places they've never been before is the kind of question that a man of his stature deserves, and his response has to be one of my favorite press conference quotes I've ever heard. Y11's success is proof that there's interest in this program, that there are expectations, and proof that there are enough of us who care that writing about EMU football is a sustainable enterprise.