Rockets Look to Dampen EMU Homecoming

Toledo looks to start off Mid-American Conference play with a big victory on the road in Ypsilanti. Our Tom Mauter has the full preview.

Tom Mauter, Rocket Digest staff writer,

October 6, 2016

Eastern Michigan University (4-1, 1-0) hosts the Toledo Rockets (3-1), Saturday at 3:00 p.m. on the gray-carpeted Rynearson Stadium. This brood of Eaglets has taken wing, soaring to its third straight win with a 28-25 win over the Falcons in the Doyt. This is EMU’s best start in more than two decades going back to 1995 for a similar 4-1 record. Picked once again this preseason to finish at the bottom of the MAC West and in the lower echelon of college ranks, I’m guessing the Eagles have a good-sized grin on their collective beak.

Third year EMU Head Coach Chris Creighton, with his white visor, looks like a finalist in a Tim Beckman look-a-like contest. He now also looks like a winner. His flock is buying what he is selling and their faith is playing out on the field.  The Factory is open for business and production is up. From my perspective, the most improved MAC team so far this young season is, hands down, the EMU Eagles. They even received one vote this week in the Amway Top 25 rankings. On the rankings, think what you may but it is a fact. That said, their efforts should get at least one shout out in the face of 20+ years of history of struggling. BTW, Coach Creighton came into this fourth season with three total wins. This team has added four more to his win column. 

Eagles on Offense

With returning starter Brogan Roback, a Toledo St. John’s grad, suspended for the first two games, junior WKU transfer Todd Porter has been the starter at QB in all five games. Two weeks ago, Roback made his first appearance of the season in relief of Porter against Wyoming, leading the Eagles to a come-from-behind 27-24 win.

Roback came into the BG game following an injury to Porter and again led the way to victory, throwing three TD passes. Porter was upended on a QB run landing hard on his right (throwing arm) elbow.  Currently his status for Saturday is questionable with a listed shoulder injury. I would pencil Roback in as the starter pending word otherwise from Coach Creighton. 

What is clear, whether it’s Porter or Roback at the quarterback position, EMU runs a balanced attack.  Eastern is averaging 189 yards on the ground, running the ball 212 times (ranked 52nd). Eleven TDs have come via the rush. By comparison, the Eagles have gone to the air 164 times, completing 102, averaging 12.68 yards per catch and 258.4 yards through the air per game (ranked #46). Ten touchdowns have been via the pass. 

Helping the passing game are the efforts of the EMU offensive line. This solid, veteran unit has allowed just four sacks through five games, tying them for 14th nationally. Despite giving up its first two sacks Friday, the Rockets are tied for third in the nation. 

Coach Creighton has two quarterbacks in which he is comfortable rotating as needed. Porter is a better runner while Roback has been a more proficient passer. Both have provided positive production for the Eagles’ offense. An area of distinction is Porter’s nine interceptions. The converse is Roback’s familiarity with the personnel, based on his experience over the last three years.  To date, this mixture of youth and experience has combined for a great start for this team.

The running game features a trio of young running backs led by redshirt sophomore Ian Eriksen (5’10”, 206# and 4.3 ypr). His blend of power and speed make him effective between the tackles as well as running wide and as a pass receiver. Redshirt freshman Breck Turner (6’1”, 202# and 6.6 ypr) and redshirt sophomore Blake Banham (5’10”, 185# and 2.9 ypr) rotate in, sharing the workload. This trio has tallied eight of the team’s 11 rushing TDs, led by Eriken’s five tallies. Turner has the longest run from scrimmage, a fifty-yard burst. This group has filled in well for Shaq Vann, EMU’s star running back, out with a season-ending injury.

The Eagles have four receivers with double-digit receptions including nine of the team’s ten TD catches. TE redshirt freshman Nigel Kilby (6’7”, 239#) leads in yardage with 250 yards on 15 catches and three touchdowns. Speedy junior Sergio Bailey II (6’0”, 186#) has a team best 21 receptions and a pair of TD catches. Junior Jonnie Niupalau (6’0”, 228#), with 13 grabs and two touchdowns, is averaging 15.85 yards per reception. He lines up as a wide out in a TE type of body.

 Junior Antoine Porter (5’8”, 185#) is racking up 14.14 yards a catch on 14 receptions including one TD. The use for three featured wide receivers and a tall tight end has produced a balanced group of receivers, averaging more than 11 yards per catch.  Red shirt junior TE Dan Buschman (6’3”, 243#) provides blocking along with pass-catching abilities in addition to Kilby. Buschman has five catches averaging 17.5 yards a grab. 

Eastern has been effective moving the ball converting on nearly half of their third down conversions, scoring on 23 of 25 red zone visits, 18 of which have been for six points. Ten turnovers in five games have prevented the offense from being even more effective but has not been a game changer to this point.

Eagles on Defense

Last year Eastern was near the bottom of defensive stats including stopping the run. Currently they are ranked #38 allowing 127.0 yards per game on the ground. Friday’s performance in Provo, dropped the Rockets from the top 20 to 84th with its yards per game soaring to 175.3.

EMU’s 4-2-5 defense has taken positive steps in defending the run and generating turnovers. They have already recovered seven of 11 opponents’ fumbles. Combining four interceptions, the Eagles defense has eleven takeaways in five games.  The front four, with linebackers, rally to the ball carrier, effectively limiting opponents’ ground game.

Up front, Jeremiah Harris leads this group in total tackles, 29, and second in TFL, 5.0, from his DE/BULL position. He also blocked a Wyoming field goal attempt preventing the tying score in the Eagles’ three point win.  DE Pat O’Connor, at the other defensive end, has been a disruptive force with a team high 6.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks.

The linebackers are led by Kyle Rachwal (WILL) and Jason Beck (DAWG), ranking number one and two in total team tackles. Ikie Calderon, who did not start against the Falcons but did play, is fourth in total tackles.  Collectively, this group has played as well as any Eagle defensive unit.

Passing defense is the EMU defense’s weak link giving up 267.6 yards in the air per contest, good for 101st nationally. Toledo ranks 15th nationally against the pass allowing 160 yards a game. 

The Eagles secondary is led by strong-side cornerback DaQuan Pace with five pass break-ups. Free safety Vince Calhoun, along with LB Jaylen Pickett, have two picks each accounting for all of the teams’ interceptions.

EMU may be missing Ross Williams, field-side cornerback, and Ike Spearman, MIKE linebacker, against Toledo. Both players have been defensive starters but did not play against Bowling Green.  The Eagle’s defensive will need all feathers on hand to deal with the Rockets’ explosive offense. 

Eagles Special Teams 

The Eagles’ kicking game is a strong aspect of their special team play. Punter Austin Barnes is on course for all MAC honors. He is averaging 47.61 yards per punt with nine of 23 punts going for 50+ yards. Paul Fricano has connected on six of eight field goals attempts with a long of 46 yards. Brendan Renius kickoffs with 10 of 33 going for touchbacks.  Other kickoffs are beyond or near the goal line.

EMU kickoff coverage has limited opponents to an average return of 17. 5 yards with a long of 42. The punt coverage unit has been excellent in six of their seven chances. They did lose coverage giving up a punt return TD of 54 yards. Otherwise, they have limited punt returns to 3.0 yards.

Blake Banham handles punt returns and most of the kickoff returns. On kickoffs, he is a threat to pop a long return. He is averaging a solid 30 yards per kickoff return with a long of 69 yards.

Players to Watch

  • #4 Brogan Roback will have a homecoming to remember if he can deal with continual pressure from the Rockets, otherwise it will more resemble a blind date gone awry
  • #52 Pat O’Connor and #90 Jeremiah Harris ability to make their way into the Rockets’ backfield
  • #20 Blake Banham’s ability to give the Eagles decent field position following Rockets’ multiple kickoffs

What to Look For:

  • ·      First INT of the season thrown by Brogan Roback
  • ·      Ian Eriksen to be held to under 100 rushing yards
  • ·      Gang tackling by Eastern defenders on carries by Hunt, Swanson and Jones-Moore
  • ·      Field side cornerback Jalen Phelps, #12, to have his hands full in man-to-man coverage
  • ·      Rockets OL to prevent any sacks of Logan
  • ·      EMU touchdown pass from Roback to Kilby
  • ·      Two or more QB sacks by the Rockets defense
  • ·      Pressure applied by Pat O’Connor, #52, from his left defensive end position
  • ·      Rockets to have fewer penalties than EMU but more yardage assessed
  • ·      Jason Beck, #3, to blitz from the defensive left end on third down and more than four yards
  • ·      Few kickoff returns by the Rockets, taking touchbacks
  • ·      Kevin McGill, #2, to play soft coverage in pass defense
  • ·      Nick Ellis, with his punt coverage unit, will not allow any punt return yardage
  • ·      Rockets kick off coverage unit will be challenged covering Blake Banham but will keep him within the 40-yard line; they cannot relax with Austin Sanders, as he is capable of breaking a return that could flip field position

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Weather Forecast: Sunshine with intervals of cloudy skies, high in mid-60s with a 20% chance of rain and humidity in the low 60% range. Winds out of the NW 10 to 15 mph.

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