In January 2016, EMU Head Football Coach Chris Creighton met with his senior players and asked them, as he does at the start of every year, to set their season goal.
“Our goal is crystal clear—to go to and win a bowl game,” Creighton said during a press conference last August. “Our seniors outlined the steps we need to take to get there. We’re going to reach our full potential by going 1-0 each day in everything we do. Our scrimmage today is an opportunity to go 1-0. The next thing we do is win each rep, win the series, win the practice, win the day and win the week.”
Bold? Perhaps. After all, the Eagles finished 1-11 in 2015 and hadn’t had a winning season since 1995. So when the team charged onto the Rynearson Stadium field for the first game of 2016, no one predicted the team would end up playing on Paradise Island, Nassau, in December.
But that’s what Eastern did, finishing 7-5 and earning an invitation to the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl—the program’s first bowl appearance in 29 seasons.
The rapid turnaround shows Eastern football is back and a force to be reckoned with in 2017 and beyond.
Following the mantra of going 1-0 with each step, Eastern won its season opener on Sept. 2 with a decisive 61-14 decision over Mississippi Valley State. Missouri dealt the Eagles a 61-21 road loss the following week. But Eastern quickly turned the page, winning consecutive games against Charlotte, Wyoming and Bowling Green.
“All great teams have the ability to learn from their experiences, flush whatever just happened and move on to the next thing,” Creighton said during the preseason, foreshadowing his team’s resiliency. “I feel our team has shown signs of that kind of maturity.”
After a 35-20 loss to Toledo on Oct. 8, Eastern surged in the second half of the following game to defeat Ohio, 27-20, in Athens. The win marked the Eagles’ first three-game road win streak since 1967.
In the next two games, Eastern came up short in losses to Western Michigan (then ranked No. 20) and Miami (Ohio). But the Eagles had perhaps their most exciting season win on Nov. 8 at Ball State.
After trailing 21-0 in the first quarter and 28-19 at halftime, the Eagles scored 29 second-half points to win 48-41. The 21-point comeback tied a school record and the team recorded its fourth-highest single-game total offensive yards (622) in program history. The win also made Eastern bowl-eligible for the first time since 1995.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a better locker room—I’m just so proud of our guys,” Creighton said after the game. “I know we’re bowl-eligible, but that doesn’t mean we’re bowl-guaranteed. We still have lots of work to do and much to improve on. This isn’t the best step or a guaranteed step [toward] our goal, but it was a monster step for us tonight.”
Northern Illinois dealt a tough 31-24 overtime loss to Eastern in the following game. But the Eagles finished the regular season with a thrilling 26-21 win over Central Michigan, scoring a clutch touchdown with just 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
On Nov. 28, Eastern accepted its bowl game invitation, setting off celebrations among the players and coaches, and creating a flush of Eagles pride across campus.
Eastern lost 24-20 to Old Dominion in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. Despite the loss, the week-long experience, which included sightseeing and community service trips to hostels for displaced and disadvantaged children, made the trip—and season—very rewarding.
“It was a special team we had,” Creighton said after the game. “Just being together on a trip like this, preparing to achieve our goal—our full goal—being here and having this opportunity was our best experience.”
Eagles’ fans can’t wait to hear about the seniors’ goals for 2017.
Contact Darcy Gifford, firstname.lastname@example.org, 734.487.5375