Discover more from The Ypsilanti Eleven
Three Points: How Short EMU Came from First MAC Title Game Berth
EMU's loss to Toledo was the most heartbreaking. It wasn't the worst loss of the season, though.
If you’re an Eastern supporter, I know exactly what you’ll be thinking today during the MAC Championship game. Your arms might fold up every time Toledo fails to convert a third down or commits its 7th, 11th, and maybe 15th penalty of the game. If it ends up being a close, low-scoring game until the end, you might pull your hair out thinking how many more points EMU’s offense potentially could’ve scored in this game.
Heck, when Toledo punts you’ll be thinking about your punter would be more fun to watch out there.
We’re already there. Let’s imagine the scene we’re missing out on.
Eastern vs. Ohio.
Green vs. White.
White vs. Green. No grey uniforms in my imagination.
Both schools would be fighting for their first-ever MAC title game victories.
Outright Michigan MAC Champs knocking on the door of its best season ever vs. Frank Solich’s old team with somebody nicknamed The Maple Missle as its QB.
Even with Kurtis Rourke out, Ohio conveniently has a West Bloomfield, Mich. native, CJ Harris, starting in his place.
It would’ve been a convenient chance for the MAC to say: check out how talented these former walk-on receivers are at both schools.
It also would’ve been a cool time for the MAC to have its Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year together in the championship arena with Ohio’s Rourke and EMU defensive end Jose Ramirez, whose season stats rank among the best in the country.
And honestly, Ohio vs. EMU sounds like a banger right now.
Toledo does not look nearly as good as it had earlier in the year. Even if you want to go by the The Took Their Foot Off The Gas theory, it doesn’t mean Toledo’s ready to snap out of its funk and play like the team we saw in Detroit back in 2017, or even like we saw in October. The team’s got injuries that’s really setting it back, but Toledo also just hasn’t looked all that great in November either; just a 1-2 record after its win over EMU.
It doesn’t matter how Toledo has looked lately because what it did in its first 10 games was good enough to achieve every team’s primary goal. It clinched the division after its 28-21 win at Ball State, then followed up by losing 42-35 to Bowling Green, then lost 20-14 at Western Michigan last week.
Meanwhile, EMU’s cleaned things up with three straight wins over Akron (34-28), Kent State (31-24), and Central Michigan (38-19).
Still, it’s just three points, I’m reminded, was the difference between EMU going to Detroit for the MAC championship game and not.
1. 27-24 vs. Toledo
Here’s what I wrote three days after Eastern’s loss to Toledo:
EMU led Toledo through the first, second, and third quarters, but didn’t have the right answers in the fourth. EMU had four possessions in the fourth quarter: Two to potentially distance its lead, and two in the final two minutes to come back from behind. Whether the letdown came from missteps on the field or solid play by the Rockets, the Eagles were outscored 10-0 in the fourth, and EMU is now 0-3 vs. MAC teams at home this year.
The first two losses came by 29 points each to Buffalo and NIU.
This 3-point loss is, said EMU coach Chris Creighton on Monday, is the third-most disappointed his team has been after a loss.
Number one was the 2019 Quick Lane Bowl when EMU lost to Pitt.
Number two would be after the Camellia Bowl when Georgia Southern had its game-winning field goal.
Toledo, without its starting quarterback to finally deliver a game-winning drive after UT had already lost the turnover battle portion of the game and its special teams unit gave EMU extra scoring chances, gave Creighton’s team its third most disappointing loss.
The loss hurt, and EMU used the midweek-MACtion version of a bye week to mentally regroup and finish the season strong. And it did: three straight wins, including the second-biggest win over CMU in the MAC era, to win the Michigan MAC title.
After it left Ypsilanti, Toledo took care of business in Muncie, Ind. to beat Ball State. That was enough to land the Rockets in the title game.
EMU finished the regular season as co-champions of the MAC West: it tied with Toledo 5-3 in MAC play, followed by Western Michigan at 4-4, Ball State and Central Michigan each at 3-5, then Northern Illinois, last year’s champions, went 2-6.
The difference was that fourth quarter. It wasn’t a comeback situation until it had to be either, which is the part that stings the most. The team didn’t look like it came in with a plan to execute for these late-game pressure situations.
Alarms went off in my head when the team was slow to get a 3rd & 4 call decided on and communicated on the field, and it was a play that split dinged-up RB Samson Evans out at wide receiver as a decoy on a pass play. After Toledo took the late lead, EMU drew up a sneak attack on 4th & 2 call. Out of a timeout, the play was for Taylor Powell to throw to Darius Lassiter for a 5ish-yard hitch route down the sideline, rather than a quick slant. The problem: Toledo cornerback Andre Fuller would not be fooled and broke the pass up.
Powell threw an interception to end EMU’s final drive of the game, and the Eagles finished with 99 passing yards. Yards aren’t everything, but I still went and looked. That’s the fewest amount of passing yards in an EMU-MAC game since 2015 when EMU had 89 pass yards at Miami. RedHawks won, 28-13.
The Toledo game was a bad loss. You couldn’t have drawn-up a better opportunity for EMU to take control of the MAC West. It had Toledo on the ropes at home.
A better finish here clearly would’ve given EMU the MAC West title outright this season, but the same could be said about two other games this season.
2. 50-31 vs. Buffalo
This is where the rollercoaster of the season actually began. Fresh off a 30-21 win at Arizona State, Eastern Michigan got to come back home to celebrate the historic achievement by pounding down on the then-winless Buffalo Bulls at home.
EMU ran just 50 plays for 327 yards while Buffalo ran 84 plays for 498 yards.
Eastern sees its record drop to 2-2 on the year, and starts league play in the loss column: 0-1 against Mid-American Conference teams.
This was just Buffalo’s first win of the season.
“We got beat. We got beat in every way to a team that came out really hungry and played harder than what we did. We’re not used to that. It’s happened before, but it doesn’t happen often,” EMU head coach Chris Creighton said after Saturday’s 50-31 home loss. “My hat’s off to them because they played harder and we didn’t.”
Eastern started the game with four straight scores, but finished its final five drives by punt, three straight turnovers on downs, and an interception.
“We didn’t do a very well offensively there at the end when we got outside of our original plan. Just all-around, it wasn’t good enough,” Creighton said.
Even in real-time, it was easy to see how difficult the season was going to get, Toledo at the time looked very impressive and Ball State’s offense had shown some weekly improvements. With a MAC East loss on the ledger, it was clear to me that EMU had to make sure it’d never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever have a repeat of this game again.
(Or a repeat of the grey on grey on grey uniform sets.)
Especially on the home turf.
(Especially on the grey turf.)
EMU’s defense clearly had some things to work on as September came to a close, and Buffalo’s offense with capable running backs and three dynamic receivers (hello, Quian Williams) made the MAC opener tricky to gameplan for.
Starting the MAC season out 0-1 isn’t great, but a crossover loss is survivable if you play cleanly against the West.
3. 39-10 vs. Northern Illinois
Especially with how dinged-up NIU looked during the year, EMU absolutely should’ve won this game. And yet, another big home loss to a MAC school.
Last year’s championship was just last year’s championship, there was no need to keep kissing their 10-month old rings. Sure it’s a more accomplished football program in the league, but NIU did not look good in 2022.
NIU finished last in the division this year, 2-6 in MAC play. It’s 3-9 overall, 6 wins fewer than last year and no bowl game to look forward to.
Just last week it lost 44-12 to Akron — a possibility that I wouldn’t have even imagined until I watched it happen. NIU had some hard-fought games in September against SEC competition, but it was still obvious that the team had a fast, hard decline.
The EMU game, though, would make you second-guess that thought in mid-October.
It certainly made me second-guess this team’s chances at winning the West title outright.
Chris Creighton said he was out-coached in the game by Thomas Hammock of Northern Illinois immediately after the game. Maybe Creighton was out-coached all week, he conceded.
“I didn’t have answers,” Creighton said. “Couldn’t move the ball. Couldn’t score points, couldn’t get into any rhythm offensively.”
This is the second time this season that Creighton has lost a home MAC game by 29 points to a coach that’s spent less time in the league than he has. This is Hammock’s fourth season, and Maurice Linguist is in his second year with Buffalo.
As I noted before, Saturday’s game was the start of EMU’s most-important 3-game stretch of the MAC season with all divisional opponents. While the Western Michigan win had its own historic merits, it didn’t change the season's picture for anybody. EMU had to follow that up with wins over its MAC West opponents. Getting to four wins in divisional play before November was the ideal situation, especially since it started out with a MAC East loss.
But after NIU came into Rynearson Stadium and beat the Eagles by barely using its zombie quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who was 11 of 15 passing on a bad left leg, how can EMU look at its next two games and feel good about its shot at winning a divisional title?
This wasn’t a fancy game by NIU. Either one of the running backs would get the rock (team: 49 carries, 287 rush yards, 3 TD), or Lombardi would try to throw the team out of passing downs.
And again, as Creighton said, EMU’s offense didn’t do well at home. It was 2 of 13 on third downs while NIU was 9 of 16. Total yards: NIU had 410 while EMU finished at 226. Defending the run against NIU was worse than what the home side saw in the Buffalo game.
The Bulls had 3.7 yards per carry, the Huskies had 5.9. While the Toledo loss might’ve been the most heartbreaking in Creighton’s eyes, the NIU game is arguably the worst loss of the year. The final score was just as bad as the Buffalo game and it looked more demoralizing. At least Buffalo’s got the talent that put the team in a bowl game.
EMU’s roster battled injuries to lose some key players across the defense at this point of the season, but that doesn’t mean Lombardi had to complete 11 of his 15 passes on one leg in live action. NIU had no tricks up its sleeves and beat EMU badly.
Had the Eagles won this game (or the Buffalo game), it could’ve still back-doored its way into Detroit. Some might say that EMU fell short of the MAC championship picture by three points. I’d argue that on a couple of occasions, EMU lost the division by 29.
The Ypsilanti Eleven is local, independently run, and is the only sports media hub on the internet (or anywhere) with this much coverage dedicated to Eastern Michigan. Your contributions will help pay for the year-round labor and improvements required to make this your favorite place to read about EMU and MACtion.