Week 2 Preview: Eastern Michigan at Minnesota
Eastern Michigan aims to make its fifth Power 5 victory since 2017.
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One of the bigger takeaways I saw from Eastern’s fanbase after Minnesota came back to beat Nebraska 13-10 to open up the season Thursday was that these Gophers weren’t all that impressive. A fourth Big Ten win since 2017 isn’t in the bag just yet for Eastern, but this weekend shouldn’t be a bludgeoning.
The Gophers (1-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) took at 3-0 lead early in the second quarter, then fell to a 10-3 deficit early in the fourth. Nebraska, which flew around and played tough all night for first-year head coach Matt Rhule, was wildly inefficient on offense including two interceptions thrown to Minnesota, then its final two drives of the game ended with a fumble and a third interception. The fumble at midfield led to a 10-play TD drive to tie things up, and the interception led to a 47-yard field goal in the final seconds for Minnesota to win in front of the home crowd.
No, Minnesota didn’t go out there and bloody Nebraska’s nose, but the team kept its cool, let the offense operate differently than what it planned for, and let four turnovers be the difference maker. Pardon the pun, but EMU (1-0) is in a similar boat here: it won its home opener by a respectable margin over a team it was supposed to beat, and now this weekend’s going to be busy for a different set of reasons.
Can EMU make its fifth Power 5 win over seven seasons by taking down an old foe? Or will the toughest opponent on EMU’s schedule (F+ rank: 27) feed the Eagles some humble pie?
Last week EMU faced an FCS squad with a lot of returning talent led by a fourth-year, first-time head coach. Minnesota had a few starters leave last year, especially on offense, but 7th-year head coach P.J. Fleck was already a proven coach with a MAC title won at Western Michigan back in 2016. Since Fleck left WMU and brought his famous Row The Boat-mantra’d culture to Minneapolis in 2017, the Gophers have had just two losing seasons: 5-7 in his first year, then 3-4 in 2020 (you can write that season off if you so choose to).
EMU has had four wins against Power 5 teams, including three over Big Ten teams: 16-13 over Rutgers in 2017, 20-19 over Purdue in 2018, 33-31 over Illinois in 2019, and 30-21 last year at Arizona State. EMU was an underdog in each of those contests, and this week is no different. The opening betting line had Minnesota as the 18.5-point favorite, but Vegas has since moved the line to -20.5.
A three-touchdown spread doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue right, especially when you also remember what happened in 2021. Sure, EMU lost to Wisconsin that year (34-7), but two weeks later, Minnesota lost pretty embarrassingly to Bowling Green (14-10).
Are you in need of some free gambling advice? Here’s some: Don’t let last week’s results read too much as a crystal ball into how this game’s going to go. For either side.
Minnesota SP+ Rank: 39
EMU SP+ Rank: 101
This will be the fourth Creighton vs. Fleck coaching game.
When Creighton first entered EMU in 2014, Fleck was on the upswing at Western Michigan to build from a 1-11 start in 2013.
In 2014, EMU got rinsed 51-7 after the Broncos got off to a 48-0 lead at halftime in Kalamazoo. In 2015, WMU scored on 10 of its 12 drives (7 touchdowns, 3 field goals) to finish with a 58-28 win on the gray turf. Nobody in the MAC was going to beat Fleck’s Broncos in 2016 including Eastern, which lost 45-31 in Kalamazoo.
While Eastern showed year-after-year progress against one of the best dynasties in MAC football history, all that progress was right at the beginning of EMU’s upswing as a program. EMU didn’t go to Detroit, but it still went from 1-11 in 2015 to 7-6 and a bowl game in the Bahamas.
Still, it’s been a while since these two coaches met up on the field, and now they face each other again with a completely different set of circumstances. EMU’s been to more than just one bowl game, and Minnesota’s not just some average team hanging around in the Big Ten West.
“This opponent is really tough. They’re big and strong and their athletes are really good and they’re well coached,” Creighton said at Monday’s press conference. “It’s one of the things I’ve always thought that with coach Fleck and his teams, people talk about the program part a lot, as they should, but I think people don’t talk enough about how well-coached they are on the field. I think they’re really, really, really well-coached.”
Special teams difference makers
If this game gets close in the third and fourth quarters, this is going to be an area where EMU’s dedication to special teams preparation will get a chance to shine. Heck, EMU’s special teams is off to a start that should let everybody know that they’re fools if they let #1 or #28 have chances to field kicks.
Jaylon Jackson was already one of the nation’s top kick returners with his pair of 80+ yard returns last season and reminded everybody that he’s still as cold-blooded as you remember with an 84-yard free kick return TD vs. Howard.
El-Zayat, who missed all of 2022 with an injury, finally got to introduce himself as a go-getting graduate transfer from Fordham. He led EMU with 156 all-purpose yards in the team’s season opener (96 kick return, 42 punt return, 12 receiving, 6 rushing) and a big special teams tackle as well.
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