Seven things to know about Eastern Michigan

Adam Luckett, Special to Cats Illustrated
Cats Illustrated

Kentucky will enter week five of the season with a 3-1 record and on Saturday they will be playing their second Group of Five team on the year. Eastern Michigan will be making the trip to Lexington for the first time ever and the Eagles have a squad that will contend for a bowl berth out of the MAC.

Once known as one of the worst programs in college football yearly, Chris Creighton has done a remarkable job as he took the Eagles to their first bowl game since 1987 last season which would be only the second postseason appearance in program history.

For a squad that is led by an upstart head coach and an experienced quarterback, you would think that it would be the offense that is carrying the way. But so far in 2017, this EMU squad is winning with defense.

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Winning Culture

Chris Creighton took over this program in 2013 after running successful, winning teams at the NAIA, Division III, and FCS levels. He came to Ypsilanti to take on a program that seemed to be the worst in FBS. After going 3-21 in his first two seasons, the Eagles bounced back strong with a 7-win season last fall where they collected five straight up victories as underdogs.

EMU was a program that was considered one of the worst in all of college football and was one of the few MAC programs that hadn’t experienced any type of success in the last 20 years. That all changed with Creighton as he brought his own type of players into the program and has guided EMU through many close wins.

This has not been done with smoke and mirrors as the Eagles play straight up football and in 2017 they are winning with defense and ball security. So pretty much, they’re your typical MAC team. They’re physical and do not hurt themselves.

Experienced Quarterback

Brogan Roback has started games for EMU since his true freshman season and his sophomore/junior seasons saw him throw for 34 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. So far in 2017, he’s off to a solid start as he’s completing 60.5% of his passes and led EMU to their first ever Power Five victory when the Eagles defeated Rutgers in week two.

Roback is averaging 266 passing yards per game on the year and is averaging seven yards per attempt. He has been very smart with the football and has only taken four sacks in three games. EMU’s offense gets the ball out very fast and there won’t be very many times where the defense is stretched vertically. The coaching staff depends on Roback to do a lot as he’s attempted over 30 passes in each game to this point of the season. It’s a very real possibility that EMU will attempt between 40-50 passes on Saturday.

Struggling Ground Game

Last season, EMU had four players that averaged over four yards per carry as the run game was very dependable. Roback was able to chip in 223 yards on the ground and this became a very balanced attack.

This season that has not been the case as no player is averaging more than four yards per carry and the Eagles currently do not rank above 75th in any of the five advanced measurements used by Football Outsiders to grade rushing attacks. This has caused EMU to become more pass heavy and it really costed the squad in the home loss to Ohio.

This has been somewhat of a surprise as all of the backs from last season are back and it was it was thought that the rushing game would be a strength of the team. However, the offensive line is breaking in some new starters and that has been a struggle for the EMU offense. Shaq Vaughn, a junior from South Bend, has gotten a lion’s share of the carries but is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has already lost a fumble this season. On the season, Vaughn has 49 carries while the rest of the team only has 45 attempts. Don’t be surprised if EMU sends multiple backs UK’s way as offensive coordinator Aaron Keen is searching for answers in the backfield.

Two Primary Targets

When taking a look at the EMU passing game, the two names you have to know are senior wideouts Sergio Bailey II and Antoine Porter. These two are who Roback looks to nearly every play and they’ve accounted for 45.5% of the targets on the season. Kentucky’s secondary will need to be aware of the duo on every snap.

Bailey is the most dynamic of the two as he’s averaging 15.7 yards per catch after scoring seven touchdowns on 60 catches for 868 yards last season. Porter is more of a possession type receiver EMU will use out of the slot. Standing at five-foot-eight and 180 pounds he could provide UK some match-up problems in the intermediate passing game. On the season, Porter has 14 receptions for 177 yards.

These two seniors both have a catch rate of over 58% (the amount of targets that turn into receptions) so expect them to be used early and often in EMU’s pass heavy attack.

Stingy Pass Defense

The EMU defense has been outstanding to start the season and they currently lead the MAC in scoring defense. The main reason for this has been their ability to put the clamps on opposing passing attacks.

For the season, opponents are only completing 49% of their passes and the Eagles are only allowing 169.7 passing yards per game. EMU has five interceptions in three games and this pass defense has been outstanding to start the season. The pass rush has been serviceable but a lot of their success is due to the play of their defense after the ball is thrown.

On the year, EMU has 14 pass break-ups to go along with the five interceptions. Brody Hoying, from his nickel position, has led the way as he has two pass break-ups to go with two interceptions and one of those resulted in a pick-six against Charlotte. Kentucky must be careful with the football when they go to the air on Saturday.

Punting Surprise

Ivan Oraha is the team’s starting punter and he has a 35.7 yard average after 12 punts on the season. However, the team’s best punter is the quarterback.

Brogan Roback has punted seven times on the season and is averaging 44.9 yards per kick. This is an option that Chris Creighton likes to go to very frequently and Roback is a nice weapon to have as a pooch option. With the quarterback serving as a punter, this totally eliminates opposing punt returns and allows EMU to get a huge advantage in the hidden yardage battle.

Bad on Third Down

A part of reason for the offensive struggles for EMU to start the season has been the trouble to convert first downs. For the season, the Eagles are only converting on third down 32% of the time and this is a very big reason why they are only posting 20 points per game.

In the overtime loss to Ohio last weekend, EMU only had five first down conversions on 18 third down attempts and that was the biggest reason why they lost the MAC opener. To score points, you need to convert on third downs and that is something EMU is just not doing. If the Eagles still struggle on third downs on Saturday, they are going to have a hard time scoring points on an SEC defense as their offense is just not producing explosive plays.

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