One of the underrated curses in sports is Eastern Michigan’s Huron curse. EMU changed its nickname from Hurons to Eagles in 1990, and in the two decades-and-change since, has a single winning season to show for it.
EMU last went bowling in 1987. When the then-still-Hurons met San Jose State in the California Bowl, Three Men And A Baby was the top grossing film at the box office. It’s apropos, really. A movie probably most famous for a supposed specter lingering in a shot seem an apt comparison for EMU, which has been haunted by failure.
Whatever the opposite of a gold standard is — tin standard? Cardboard standard? — that’s the mark Eastern Michigan football has set. Oftentimes the Eagles have played like the mannequin from Three Men And A Baby. If you think that’s harsh, I refrained from making a Steve Guttenberg comparison.
Enter Ron English. He assumed the controls in Ypsilanti before the 2009 campaign — a season in which the Eagles bottomed out, finishing 0-12. One has to hit rock bottom before recovering though, and since that winless slate, English has captained a steady march to respectability. Friend of the Blog Reginald Eller wrote an excellent piece examining English’s EMU tenure at Crystal Ball Run last December following the Eagles’ unpredictable 6-6 campaign.
The Eagles finished out of bowl eligibility due to two of their wins coming against Championship Subdivision competition, but the .500 season was the program’s best since 1995. EMU reached this decade-and-a-half pinnacle with defense.
In its winless ’09, EMU allowed 38.3 points per game. Just three FBS programs were less effective defensively. English instilled the same tenacious defensive approach at EMU that garnered him National Defensive Coordinator of the Year honors in 2006 at nearby Michigan, and he did so in relative short order.
Just two seasons after that embarrassing 38.3 mark, EMU improved by exactly two touchdowns and extra points. The 24.3 PPG allowed in ’11 was good enough to rank the Eagles No. 50 nationally, a respectable mark in the offensively explosive MAC. In fact, that yield was good enough to rank No. 4 in the conference. Temple and Ohio, Nos. 1 and 2 in that category, were bowl game winners.
Respectability is subjective, however. EMU proved itself one of the better defenses in the league, yet received zero 1st Team All-Defense commendations and a single honor on the 2nd Team (graduated lineman Brad Ohrman). There remains a stigma attached to Eagle football that the coming season’s team must break.
Defense should make EMU its bones in 2012, on the silver anniversary of the program’s last postseason appearance. Defensive lineman Andy Mulumba returns from a 3.5 sack, 51 tackle and team leading eight QB hurries campaign as an anchor up front with tackles leader Justin Cudworth backing him at linebacker.
Cudworth was 3rd Team All-MAC for his 83 tackle, 8.5 tackle for loss season. Another 3rd Team honoree, defensive back Marlon Pollard, returns to the secondary. He made 54 tackles and led the Eagles with eight pass deflections.
Buoying the defense was a ball controlling style. EMU held possession for nearly 32 minutes per game. However, time did not translate into points, a season average a little over 21 evidence to that. A more effective offense would have sent the Eagles bowling last season: in their two final games, the defense held Kent State and prolific Northern Illinois to a combined 46 points, yet mustered just 22 (vs. KSU) and 12 (vs. NIU) on the opposite end. Each loss was by six points.
Some good news for English is he returns his leading rusher and passer. Each happens to be the same person. Quarterback Alex Gillett carried the ball for over 700 yards at a 4.4 yard per carry clip, and finished just shy of 2000 yards passing in 198 attempts.
Gillett keyed the Eagles’ rush-first offensive philosophy, which produced three more ball carriers who went for over 570 yards: Javonti Greene, Dominique White and Dominique Sherrer. All three return in 2012.
While the trio combined for nearly 1800 yards, only Sherrer averaged above 5 YPC. Should Gillett become more comfortable with the passing element of his dual threat game, that will open the field more for the rushers. Gillett had a decent 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but completed just 55 percent of his passes. Returning his top two catchers in receiver Nick Olds and tight end Garrett Hoskins, two big targets, should aid in the process.
Gillett throwing at a 60-63 percent range, for about 2500 yards would give the Eagles a varied enough look to fully take advantage of their ball hawking style.
While finally experiencing a winning season and making a bowl are admirable goals for a long struggling program, contention for the MAC West is not out of the realm of possibility, either. The division is tough: Western Michigan and Toledo both return substantial talent from their 2011 bowl game teams, and Northern Illinois finished as strong as any team in college football under first year head coach Dave Doeren. That said, the Eagles finished 5-1 at Rynearson Stadium last season and welcome both UT and NIU there this year.