No one gave the Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-3, 0-0 MAC) a chance in Death Valley against the LSU Tigers (4-0, 0-0 SEC), with a lot of noise being made about Eastern Michigan fielding the worst run defense in the FBS, giving up an average of 377.3 yards and 18 touchdowns per game on the ground.
Add the 128th ranked defense to perhaps the best college football player since Herschel Walker played at Georgia in Leonard Fournette, and the result was bound to end in Eagle feathers splayed across the grass.
However, it was not so.
Coach Chris Creighton, in his second year at the helm of EMU, has gone about instilling a culture that obsesses over perfection and improvement, trying to reignite a stagnant fan base and get some positive momentum going for a program that has experienced scandal (the Ron English firing), tragedy (Demerius Reed’s murder midseason), and performance woes (one winning season since 1997, one bowl appearance since 1974) since becoming a full MAC member.
It seems that Coach Creigton’s message about resiliency showed up loud and clear in Baton Rouge, as the Bayou Bengals were forced to take Eastern Michigan seriously, even despite those weird helmets EMU wore.
It looked like the Tigers were going to dispatch the Eagles early after jumping to a quick 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Eastern Michigan pulled off its best “Central Michigan against the Spartans” impression and went on a furious run, scoring 14 unanswered points after forcing LSU’s first turnover of the season.
The Eagles didn’t back down even well into the third quarter, staying a possession within the Tigers on the road after converting a simply amazing two-point conversion that has to be seen to be believed.
Eventually, Leonard Fournette, held to just 93 yards at the half, took over the game, scoring two touchdowns, including a 75-yard run twelve seconds into the third quarter. The Tigers would escape 44-22.
As I’ve said before, football is a results-oriented business, and at the end of the day, a loss is a loss. But, Eastern Michigan showed a lot of heart, despite being 47.5 point underdogs coming into the game, and Coach Creighton should be excited about the progress that his team showed against a top ten ranked opponent, especially one from the SEC.
There are a lot of positives to take away in terms of player development, with Sam Browning being the star of the game for the Eagles after an six reception, 87 yard day that saw him nearly score multiple times. Up until this game, Browning had only 1 catch for a three yard touchdown. The backup tight end was easily the most reliable receiving target on the day, with Cody Tuttle, the starter, getting only three receptions for 26 yards.
The legend of Shaq Vann continued to grow as well, with Vann gaining 62 total yards between rushing and receiving, scoring EMU’s first touchdown, finding an open gap in the red zone after a nearly four minute drive. On the next drive, running mate Darius Jackson drove it through the middle for a score of his own. Overall, the backs ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Brogan Roback, who is normally the backup to Reginald Bell III, showed a great propensity for managing the game, throwing for an efficient 17/24, with 161 yards, and a touchdown to Dustin Kreel. Roback was also the receiver on the two point conversion, grabbing the Eddie Daugherty pass to do so. His stats will surely be overshadowed by his three interceptions, one of which was a touchdown, but Roback’s performance Saturday night against a stingy defense should give Coach Creighton some confidence in his ability.
The defense for Eastern Michigan played lights out, making multiple touchdown-saving tackles or pass breakups to keep the offense in the game. On the day, Brandon Harris ended the day at 4/15 for 80 yards, an interception, and no passing touchdowns (though he did have a running score). Fournette, who many predicted would hit the 300 yard mark, didn’t even get to 250, gaining 233 yards and three touchdowns on the day.
The damage could have been a lot worse, so while 399 yards might look rough on paper, it’s only 26 yards more than average. Eastern Michigan quietly has a top 10 passing defense, giving up only 508 yards and three touchdowns, and their performance on a national stage showed the college football world just how effective they can be.
Coach Creighton will certainly have the building blocks to set up a steady foundation for the Eagles going in to MAC play, between Roback’s game management skills, Vann’s big play ability, and a surprisingly solid defense. When Bell comes back, this EMU team could be even more dangerous than they are now.
The road will be rough to reap reward from, as Toledo, Central Michigan, and Ball State have emerged as contenders in the MAC West, while Northern Illinois and Western Michigan are still dangerous despite their records. That being said, the Eagles fighured out a way to #TakeAStand against the Tigers, and that will go a long way towards boosting their confidence down the road.