Last Saturday marked yet another milestone in the history of Eastern Michigan football under head coach Chris Creighton. The Eagles held on to beat Rutgers in a defensive struggle, 16-13, to improve to 2-0 on the season.
Prior to Saturday’s win, here’s how Eastern Michigan teams fared against the current members of the Big Ten Conference:
Maryland; 0-4 (though all pre-dated the Terrapins’ move to the Big Ten)
Michigan State: 0-9
Ohio State: 0-1
Penn State: 0-3
Eastern Michigan had even lost to Rugers once previously, 28-10, in the 2013 season; the Scarlet Knights’ final campaign before leaving the former Big East for the Big Ten. Count it and the Maryland defeats, and EMU was 0-35 against the current Big Ten before Saturday.
“It was a big day for us,” Creighton said on Monday’s Mid-American Conference call. “It took every second of that game for us to hang in there and try to work our plan.”
The program’s first-ever victory over the Big Ten doubled as Eastern Michigan’s first defeat of an opponent from any Power Five conference. Arizona? Arkansas? Florida? LSU? Missouri?
All goose eggs in the win column. Saturday was a new milestone in the history of a program that was long without reason to celebrate, but has cause for excitement under Chris Creighton — even if that celebration now is measured.
“One of the takeaways, for me, was in our locker room afterwards,” Creighton said. “Guys were definitely happy and celebrating; however, there was not a sense that something absolutely crazy had happened.
“I’d been in our Eastern Michigan locker room before where it was euphoria, and it wasn’t that. I thought that was really telling about our team, and the future.”
Indeed, reaching new program milestones has become something of a standard set under Creighton in the last two years.
Prior to last season’s appearance in the Bahamas Bowl, Eastern Michigan participated in one postseason in the program’s history: the 1987 California Bowl.
The television broadcast opens with a video package featuring Wang Chung’s “City of Angels,” to give you a sense of how long ago that truly was.
Like synth-pop music, Vaurnet of France t-shirts and Aqua Net hairspray, the end of the ’80s marked the end of Eastern Michigan’s football relevance. From 1990 and for the next two decades, EMU finished above .500 once.
The Eagles reached exactly .500 in 2011 under former head coach Ron English, who had seemingly breathed life into the program. But a 2-10 finish with a veteran roster in 2012, followed by an inauspicious start to 2013 — and profane tirade — forced Eastern Michigan in a new direction.
English’s ugly split from the program just two seasons seemingly left Eastern Michigan in as difficult of a spot as when he arrived; perhaps worse, given the budgetary issues looming over the university.
Creighton was hired to take over a perpetually losing program, coming on board with no FBS coaching experience, and after just his second season on the job, had calls to drop to Div. III looming.
Now, Creighton previously coached at Div. III Wabash, where his teams reached three NCAA Playoffs, and he jumped to EMU from Drake: a member of the FCS non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. He had experience and success in non-scholarship environments, but that wasn’t the situation he took over at Eastern Michigan.
That’s a situation even more dire than the one he inherited. “Adversity” is a popular buzzword in football circles, but few can say they’ve faced, and succeeded against, the level of adversity Chris Creighton and his players have been up against.
Last season — Eastern Michigan’s breakthrough campaign under Creighton — EMU football provided an unlikely avatar for the social and political strife in our nation.
The Eagles’ 7-6 finish in 2016 didn’t garner the praise I would have thought befitting such a success story; perhaps a late-season loss during mid-week MACtion, or falling in the Bahamas Bowl, contributed to the rather quiet response.
MAC media tabbed EMU for No. 4 in the conference’s West division — much better than most years, but still closer in the number of points to last-place selection Ball State than the top three of Toledo, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois.
Chalk it up to habit; after all, Eastern Michigan went 30 years without sustained success.
Although it’s early into the 2017 season, Creighton’s team appears ready to defy expectations for a second year.
The Eagles defense has been excellent against the pass, limiting Charlotte and Rutgers to 43 percent completions. Eastern Michigan also has five interceptions, including two from Brody Hoying — one of which he ran back for a touchdown.
Senior quarterback Brogan Roback has improved upon his completion and yards-per-attempt numbers compared to a season ago. If he can get rolling with All-Name Team candidate running back Shaq Vann, the Eagles should have an offense consistent enough to be the antidote to some of their MAC counterparts.
EMU has an open date before hosting MAC East preseason favorite Ohio. A win over the Bobcats — an opponent the Eagles beat in Athens last season — could position Creighton’s bunch for surprise contention in the conference.
A divisional crown would be Eastern Michigan’s first, and result in the program’s first ticket to the MAC Championship Game.
Perhaps then, the celebration will be more elaborate than it was for EMU’s first win over the Big Ten. In the meantime, the Eagles have come to expect success with Chris Creighton.