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It's Certainly Homecoming Week, But a 'Happy' One? That's Debatable
EMU can't afford another loss in the division if it wants to stay in the MAC Championship conversation.
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It’s homecoming week, but I hesitate to call it a happy one.
How long after a loss like that are you supposed to let the good feelings ride through you?
I mean, the moment Eastern Michigan (2-3 overall, 0-1 MAC) had control of Saturday’s game at Kelly/Shorts, it slipped away. The second half started with Austin Smith’s first touchdown pass since his 50-yard game-winner against UMass, except it was just a 4-yard fade route at the goal line — not a prayer on the run from midfield. Eastern’s offense was on its way to its best performance of the year on offense
Smith’s 11 career start, of course, was his best game yet. His 76.9% completion rate was his best single-game mark yet, it was the fourth multi-score game, and his 71 rushing yards is the second-most he’s had in a game (74 yards vs. Buffalo last year).
Not a perfect performance — a pair of misplays in Eastern’s final drive (probably should’ve thrown to Hamze El-Zayat on 2nd & 13 instead of running for six yards; probably shouldn’t have attempted the incompletion to J.B. Mitchell when running to his left on third down) helped set up Jesus Gomez’s missed field goal — but it’s a pulse the fans in green and white were certainly happy to see on a rivalry stage.
Still, on the whole, the offense was much more improved thanks to Smith’s light-flicking game. Special teams and defense did a lot of the season’s leg work to this point, and have been consistent until week in and week out. Except at Mt. Pleasant, those units under-performed by their own standards.
The defense gave up 7.8 yards per play, 7.1 per rush attempt.
The special teams unit was 1-for-2 on field goals and 2-for-3 on PAT kicks. It was the first time neither of Mitch Tomasek’s punts logged 50+ yards nor land inside the 20.
On the opening kick of the game, CMU’s Marion Lukes took the kickoff from his own end zone to the house. Granted, the score was called back from a rightly-called holding penalty, but it set the tone in front of 28,000+ fans in attendance.
And how’d CMU’s offense respond? With a touchdown drive that was strung out over 91 yards, and needed just nine plays to do it.
Just a gutting start for the offense, down 7-0 before it touched the football.
The EMU offense, meanwhile went from from its 2.4 yards per play ran at Jacksonville State to a more modest 5.3 average against CMU.
After EMU took a 16-14 lead after Smith’s TD connection with Tanner Knue (career 16th), it was time to send out the kicking team. CMU blocked Gomez’s ensuing PAT kick and returned it to the house, so instead of a 3-point lead on the road, it was a tie game.
CMU followed-up with a short field goal to be up by 3 instead of re-tying the game at that moment. EMU responded with a 6-play, 75-yard TD drive (Samson Evans 1-yard run) to be up by 4 points instead of 7. CMU later scored on a 24-yard run to, again, be up by 3 instead of a re-tie. EMU’s next drive traveled all the way from EMU’s 22-yard line to CMU’s 28, then came out EMU’s kicking team to try for overtime with under a minute remaining.
Gomez’s field goal try, after he already made his second-career 55-yarder (a school record) to start his afternoon, had the distance from 46 yards out but pushed the ball just right of the upright. Gomez took the missed attempt hard, but playing for overtime was an avoidable situation.
Losing to Central stinks. For one, losing important rivalry matchups sting hard anyways. But also, continually not stringing together winning streaks in the series adds up.
EMU still hasn’t put together two (2) wins in a row over CMU since 2007-2008. And now there’s nothing left to do about that series except sit and wait until next season for the Chippewas come to Ypsilanti with its all-time record of 64 wins and 31 losses (six ties) against EMU. It’s going to take a long time before EMU truly comes back from that series record, and it’ll take at least a year before EMU is able to get its next win over the Chips.
Can’t afford another West loss
EMU head coach focused on what he saw as the bigger picture outlook for this team after the game. Better days look like they’re ahead, maybe, but after a game where the SP+ post-game win-expectancy percentage reads 6.9% for EMU and its place in the MAC standings read 0-1 while Toledo’s atop the division with a 2-0 record, this team has to show even more improvement this week with Ball State coming to town.
“Big-picture, I think that we’re encouraged by some of the production that our offense showed which had been off to a really slow start to the season,” Creighton said Monday at his weekly press conference. “Knowing that all three phases can play at a high level is encouraging but the isolation of the week when you’re trying to win the game and you lose your first MAC game, it was definitely a painful loss.”
This is a division ripe to cannibalize itself — this is MACtion after all — and that’s certainly going to be the playbook for success for EMU moving forward. Being down 0-1 in the MAC standings is easier to manage if that loss came in cross-divisional play, but being down 0-1 in your own division means EMU has its back against the wall.
In a six-team divisional format, it’s almost impossible to get into Detroit with any record worse than 4-1 in MAC West play. Plenty of teams have gotten to the MAC Championship by beating all their divisional foes losing three crossover games, but no MAC team has done it since 2007 when the East, which had seven teams, was won by Miami with two intra-divisional losses to Temple (24-17) and Ohio (38-29).
Ball State’s not exactly the greatest MAC football team ever, but since when has that meant EMU should come into this game as heavy favorites?
Even at home?
But it’s homecoming!
Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but hosting Ball State in a must-win game right now is going to be a very stressful one, recent history shows. Over the last eight games played in this series, the visiting team has won six times.
Ball State, down 0-1 in the MAC standings after last week’s conference-opening loss to Western Michigan (42-24), is aiming for the same goals and has the pedigree to get back at EMU for winning last year down in Muncie (20-16).
Middle linebacker and team captain Chase Kline, who missed last year’s game at Ball State to a high-ankle sprain, said Monday at the press conference that he expects to see Ball State’s best shot this weekend.
“I know it’s a very competitive game, there’s a lot of emotions in it… so I expect their best shot,” Kline said. “I think they got a good running back, they got a good quarterback, they’ve got good coaches and we’re preparing that way, and we’re excited for the matchup.”