Eastern Michigan a ‘direct mirror’ of what UMass football trying to build

  • Eastern Michigan's Freddie McGee III, left, breaks up a pass intended for Wisconsin's Danny Davis III during action in Madison, Wisc. last weekend. AP FILE

  • Massachusetts quarterback Brady Olson (12) looks to pass during the first half against Boston College last weekend in Amherst. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2021 2:34:45 PM

Eastern Michigan represents the “after” photo of the rebuild Walt Bell is conducting with the UMass football program.

The Eagles — once nicknamed the Normalites — went 2-10 in coach Chris Creighton’s first year in 2014 and 1-11 the following season. They appeared in the Bahamas Bowl in 2016 and reached the postseason three times between 2016 and 2019. Eastern Michigan only played six games last season and won two. The Eagles visit McGuirk Alumni Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

“They’re a great benchmark and a great model of what we try to be here,” Bell said. “They are a great opponent for us. Because ultimately that’s what we aspire to be. [Creighton] has done a great job taking a program that people thought you could not achieve success and having unbelievable success.”

The program was 40-124 in the 21st century before Creighton was hired from Drake. They had a 27-game losing streak in the early 1980’s.

“They are a direct mirror of what we hope to build here,” Bell offered. “They’ve done it the right way.”

That’s the hard way. The Eagles don’t confound with space-age schematics. They play simply, perfecting the game’s components to construct a stronger whole.

“Nothing they do is fancy. Everything they do is hard, it’s blue collar, it’s workmanlike. Their entire program is built around out-executing you,” Bell said. “They do an incredible job of reducing the game to technique and effort. That’s what allowed them to go from a job that everyone in this profession thought was a coach’s graveyard and you could never win there into a team that is consistently in bowl games.”

This season, Eastern Michigan has played the part of Goldilocks. FCS opponent Saint Francis, picked fifth in the Northeast Conference, couldn’t hang with the Eagles in Ypsilanti, Michigan, losing 35-15 to open the season. Then the Eagles traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, and only managed three first downs in Camp Randall Stadium last week, losing 34-7 to Wisconsin.

“It can help you and it can hurt you. It’s all in how you respond to it. Are you going to learn and grow from it and is it going to make you hungry to get better? Or are you going to be defeated?” Creighton said. “We don’t go into those games (against Power 5 opponents) thinking we’re going to lose and it’s not a big deal and we move on. We prepare to win. Our football team for the first time this year has to deal with the frustration of losing and getting beat.”

Eastern Michigan employed a two-quarterback system in its first two games, splitting between senior Ben Bryant and junior Preston Hutchinson. Neither has thrown a touchdown, but Hutchinson has two interceptions in 25 attempts. Both have similar rushing numbers, 11 carries for 40 (Hutchinson) or 46 yards (Bryant). Bryant has thrown for 149 yards, Hutchinson for 116.

“We don’t have to change the offense for them, but they’re not the same guy,” Creighton said. “They both have strengths, and we try to accentuate those.”

The Eagles also employ a platoon at running back. Darius Boone ran for 100 yards and a score against Saint Francis, while Jawon Hamilton added 64 yards and a score on the ground.

Their only touchdown against the Badgers was a 98-yard interception return by David Carter.

Eastern Michigan tries to use its special teams as a weapon. Punter Jake Julien ranks eighth in the nation averaging 49.58 yards per boot. UMass fumbled a punt that was returned for a touchdown last week against Boston College and allowed a kickoff return score.

“We’re proud and put a lot into our special teams,” Creighton said. “Any of us that are playing on those teams take it really seriously and know it has a profound impact on the game.”

UMass (0-2) will play at home for the second consecutive week. The Minutemen are 2-0 all-time against Eastern Michigan, beating them in 2014 and 2015 when both were members of the MAC.

True freshman Brady Olson is in line to start his second consecutive game after Tyler Lytle was ruled out earlier this week. Running back Kay’Ron Adams, defensive linemen Xavier Gonsalves, Josh Atwood and Taishan Homes, receiver Jamir Roberts, offensive lineman Brian Parish  and linebacker Zack Magdis also didn’t appear on the depth chart. Bryson Richardson, who was injured against Pittsburgh and missed the BC game, was listed as a No. 2 free safety behind Donte Lindsey.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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