Two teams picked at or near the bottom of their respective division in a preseason media poll will meet on the gridiron Saturday. Both are feeling relatively upbeat about themselves right now.
Eastern Michigan, which hosts Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. ET tilt at Rynearson Stadium, has thus far fashioned one of the better turnarounds not only in the MAC, but nationally, as well. After posting just one victory in 2015, the Eagles are 5-3 overall and 2-2 in MAC play this season.
Miami, meanwhile, battled . . .
While the RedHawks offense came alive, scoring 40 points last week, Miami’s defense played a role in both of the victories.
Asked about his own unit’s confidence at this point, defensive back De’Andre Montgomery, said, “It’s growing a lot.”
Confidence, according to Miami head coach Chuck Martin, is something the team was short on during its six-game losing streak. Despite injuries, including a spate that forced MU into using true freshman Noah Wezensky at quarterback in two games, Martin feels the RedHawks could have pulled out some earlier wins. Three of their losses were by a total of 21 points, and a 10-point loss to Ohio included a defensive TD in the final minutes.
“They’re starting to believe they can (win). They could have done it four or five weeks ago,” Martin said. “They just didn’t have the confidence.”
Eastern Michigan, of course, has experienced is own confidence struggles in past seasons when losses – sometimes lopsided losses – mounted. But not only are the Eagles winning (e.g. a win at East co-leader Ohio), they are providing formidable challenges to talented opponents. EMU trailed Toledo by just eight until a Rocket touchdown with 2:37 left provided the final 35-20 margin.
For a number of years, Eastern Michigan relied on a ground-and-pound offense. It’s more diverse these days, ranking seventh in rushing offense (154.6 ypg) and third in pass offense (276.8 ypg).
Miami, which holds an 18-4 advantage in the series, registered a convincing 28-13 win over EMU last year in Oxford. The RedHawks owned 441 yards of offense compared to just 192 for Eastern. Of that 192, just 89 came via the pass.
Montgomery, a freshman at the time, saw extended action when a starter went down. Having seen film on the 2016 Eagles, Montgomery noted Eastern has added some weapons at the skill positions. “They re a lot different,” he said, “but we are prepared for the task.”
Montgomery is part of a defense that has worked its way up to No. 1 in the conference, surrendering 348.6 ypg. MU is sixth in scoring defense 27.0 ppg.
Miami is fifth against the run (145.1 pg) and third against the pass (203.5 ypg). It is also third in pass defense efficiency.
“Bowling Green was a good team (even though) their record doesn’t show it,” Montgomery said. “Skill guy-wise, they were pretty good. They were athletic (and) fast.”
That speed and quickness was evident early as the Falcons scored on a 72-yard play just three snaps into their first possession. Overall, Bowling Green aired it out, throwing 49 times and completing 30 for 389 yards. Freshman quarterback James Morgan connected on three touchdown passes, but Miami also picked off three aerials, doing particular damage down the stretch.
“We grew a lot from last year (and) our secondary got a lot better,” said Montgomery, who registered a big interception near the goal line with BG driving for what could have been a tying score. His 34-yard return put Miami’s offense in business at its own 36 and Kenny Young took the next play 72 yards to set up a clinching touchdown.
In addition to the secondary’s growth over the past year, Montgomery also gives credit to the guys up front. “All of them (are) getting after the quarterback,” he said. “I love that. That helps us break on balls easier when the quarterback is under stress and he has to hurry up and get rid of it.”
The same can certainly be said of Eastern Michigan.
Here is more on the two teams:
► The Eagles are one win away from bowl eligibility. “Our goal is to go to and win a bowl game,” EMU head coach Chris Creighton recently said. “Our seniors spent a lot of time in the offseason thinking through that and how we were going to accomplish that. It’s really us persuuing our goal.”
► Eastern’s last bowl appearance was in 1987, when it defeated San Jose Stae, 30-27, in the California Bowl.
►A win over Miami would give EMU its best start since the 1989 season when the team raced out to a 6-2-1 record through nine games.
► The last Eastern Michigan win over Miami was 23 years ago, a streak of 8,418 days.
► EMU assistant coach Jay Peterson was a standout running back for Miami, earning four varsity letters from 1980-83.
► Five different Miami coaches or staff members spent time in Ypsilanti. Among them was head coach Chuck Margin. He served as linebackers coach at EMU from 1998-99 before departing to Grand Valley State University. Defensive coordinator Matt Pawlowski and safeties coach Joe Palcic were also at EMU.
► Redshirt junior Brogan Roback threw for 319 yards against Western Michigan. He completed 29 of 45 tosses with one TD and one interception. He has completed 63.8 percent of his passes on the year and currently ranks sixth among MAC quarterbacks in pass efficiency.
► Three different backs scored touchdowns against Western Michigan. Freshman Brock Turner led the 142-yard ground, carrying 17 times for 86 yards with one TD and a long of 41 yards. Roback added 33 yards and a score, while freshman Willie Parker chipped in 21 yards and a score.
► Four Eagles had at least five receptions against WMU: Junior Sergio Bailey II (6 catches, 93 yards); junior Antoine Porter (5 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD), freshman tight end Nigel Kilby (6 catches, 46 yards); freshman Willie Parker (7 catches, 21 yards).
► Bailey leads the team in receptions and yardage (40/565). Porter leads in receiving touchdowns (4).
► Freshman Paul Fricano has connected on 11 of 14 field goal attempts. He is 9 of 10 inside 40 yards and has a long of 46 yards.
► LB Kyle Rachwad owns 64 tackles. DT Pat O’Connor leads with 9.5 tfl and 5.5 sacks among his 26 hits. LB Jaylen Pickett has 27 tackles and two interceptions.
MIAMI REDHAWKS (2-6, 2-2 MAC)
► Quarterback Gus Ragland completed 32 of 56 passes for 396 yards with five TDs while splitting time at QB last year. In his two starts since coming back from injury this fall, Ragland has completed 32 of 56 throws for 396 yards and three touchdowns. He has yet to throw an interception as a RedHawk.
► After a slow start in his first game back, Ragland completed 22 of 35 for 215 yards with three TDs last week.
► RB Kenny Young has hit a pair of big plays in each of Miami’s wins. His swing pass reception and run to complete a 55-yard TD against Kent State proved to be the game winner. Last week’s 62-yard gallop set up the RedHawks final touchdown against Bowling Green.
► Fellow sophomore Alonzo Smith has been a workhorse for MU’s ground game. He has 116 carries for 422 yards and a pair of TDs.
► Sophomore WR James Gardner got banged up during last week’s game, but he still managed to record a career-high nine receptions for 120 yards. A one-handed grab under tight coverage set up Miami’s first touchdown.
► Gardner leads the RedHawks in catches (35), yards (581) and TDs (5). Tight end Ryan Smith has three TDs.
► Tony Reid (58) and Junior McMullen (57) lead MU tacklers. DT J.T. Jones tops the “D” in sacks (4.5) and tfl (8.0).
► Place kicker Nick Dowd has converted all 16 PATs and 7 of 8 field goal attempts. He has a long of 38 yards.
► Miami and Eastern Michigan share sixth place among MAC teams with 15 sacks apiece. However, Eastern has given up the least amount of sacks (5), while Miami is last, allowing 29 sacks.
► Penalties have been an issue for MU during much of the season. The RedHawks rank last, having been flagged 70 times for 588 yards (73.5 ypg).
► Miami leads the conference in total defense and red zone defense . Eastern Michigan is fourth in turnover margin (+0), while Miami has moved up to fifth (-1).