The Illinois football team has faced a team from the Mid-American Conference every year since 2015. That season began with a 52-3 blowout over Kent State. The 2016 Illini lost at home to Western Michigan, 34-10 — a defeat that stung slightly less after the Broncos finished the regular season undefeated (#RowTheBoat). In 2017’s season opener Illinois survived a scare against lowly Ball State. Last season the Illini needed a big second half to defeat Kent State in Champaign, 31-24. How will the Illini fare against a MAC opponent in 2019? We’ll have two opportunities to find out.
The Illini host the Akron Zips in Week One before welcoming Eastern Michigan to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14. Ten years ago — hell, three years ago — this would’ve appeared to be a complete and utter walkover. The Eagles weren’t just one of the worst teams in the MAC, they were one of the most woebegone college football programs in America. But EMU has begun to turn things around.
After a dreadful 2-10 season where they lost by an AVERAGE of 29 points per game, the Eagles made a coaching change at the end of 2013, hiring Chris Creighton to lead the program. Creighton has been successful everywhere he’s coached, totaling 161 career wins — 32 at NAIA Ottawa University, followed by 63 in eight years at Division III powerhouse Wabash, and then 44 more at FCS Drake University.
After just three victories combined in his first two seasons in Ypsilanti, Creighton has guided EMU to 19 wins since 2016 — 10 (!) more than the Illini — and is the only coach in program history to lead the Eagles to multiple bowl games (2016, 2018). So far it looks like a home run hire. I mean...if you can win at EASTERN FREAKIN’ MICHIGAN you’re probably a damn good coach.
Along with those two bowl berths, EMU has accomplished something else that Illinois has failed to do in the Lovie Smith era — defeat a Big Ten team on the road in back-to-back seasons (Rutgers in 2017, Purdue in 2018). Let’s hope they don’t make it three in a row, eh?
St. Louis native Mike Glass III is expected to start the year as the Eagles’ signal caller, replacing Iowa grad transfer Tyler Wiegers. Glass gave a jolt to the EMU offense when on the field. The dual-threat quarterback played in eight games last season, passing for 1,024 yards and nine touchdowns while running for 412 yards and six scores.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Jackson is another intriguing dual-threat QB that could see the field this season.
Senior running back Shaq Vann is the Eagles’ leading returning rusher and a preseason All-MAC selection. Vann enters 2019 with 15 career rushing touchdowns and more than 2,200 yards from scrimmage.
Eastern Michigan will look to build on what was a fairly stingy pass defense in 2018. The Eagles gave up only 12 passing touchdowns and 150 yards per game. They finished 33rd nationally in interceptions (13) and are led by senior stalwarts Vince Calhoun and Kevin McGill.
Calhoun, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound safety, recorded 84 tackles — good for second on the team — and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Calhoun, a four-year starter, has the look and productivity of a future NFL player. McGill earned preseason First-Team All-MAC honors, led all Eagles in pass breakups (6) and tied with Calhoun for most interceptions. Like Calhoun, McGill is a four-year starter in the defensive backfield.
However, the Eagles have a tough task in replacing two standout defensive linemen, Jeremiah Harris and Maxx Crosby — a fourth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders — who led the team in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (19).
Chad Ryland made one of the most memorable kicks in program history, nailing a 24-yard field goal as time expired to upset Purdue, 20-19, at Ross-Ade Stadium last season. Ryland was successful on 12-of-20 field goal attempts and made all 41 extra point tries a season ago as a freshman. Chances are that he’ll continue to improve.
Junior Jake Julien was a nominee for the Ray Guy Award last season, given to the country’s top punter. A 2019 preaseason All-MAC honoree, Julien has proven to be a valuable asset for the Eagles. Of his 71 punts, 13 of them went at least 50 yards — including a long of 73 — and another 24 pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Julien’s numbers are strikingly similar to those of Illinois’ Blake Hayes, with Hayes having a slight edge in yards per punt (43.6 to 43.4) and 50-yard boots (14 to 13). The field position game could play a huge role in this matchup.
What To Expect
Let’s keep it 100 — Illinois isn’t good enough to overlook anybody. Rod Smith’s offense can certainly move the ball, and there are plenty of new playmakers to complement guys like Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein and Ricky Smalling.
Defensively, it’s impossible to imagine being worse than what we were forced to endure in 2018, but questions remain.
The Eagles’ trip to Champaign will be their third consecutive road game to open the season, so they could be worn down and simply ready to get home. However, Chris Creighton has coached Eastern Michigan to its only two winning seasons since 1995 and deserves praise for turning EMU’s program around. This ought to be a win for the Illini but I would anticipate a tightly contested game.