Illinois State 31, EMU 14: time to panic?
Since I’m not quite sure where else to start, let’s lead off with this:
In the wake of today’s blowout at the hands of Illinois State, it seems like there’s a lot of over-the-top chatter. Suggestions that certain players’ scholarships should be pulled. Suggestions about moving players from the offensive line to the defensive line. Calls for the entire coaching staff to be fired. Fans saying they are “throwing in the towel”, that they’re done with EMU football for good. Suggestions that EMU should drop to the Football Championship Subdivision (we’ve heard this before, but not usually from the EMU fan base).
Most of these are emotions talking, not reason, and most of these are not reasonable ideas.
Pulling a player’s scholarship based on one bad performance is not reasonable. First, a single game is not necessarily a fair reflection of what a player can do. On top of that, you have to consider not just how a player is performing, but who, if you cut him, you will replace him with. Do you have a better replacement? Most of the time the answer is “no”, because if there was someone better on the team, they’d be playing instead.
Trying to have players learning new positions mid-season is not reasonable. Just because they both feature large players and have the word “line” in them doesn’t mean that offensive line and defensive line are particularly similar. They are distinct squads with distinct roles, and like any position, take time to learn. The switch can be made, or course, but 17% of the way through the season is not the time for it.
Calls for the entire coaching staff to be fired are not reasonable, and in fact, are entirely absurd. Aside from the difficulty of replacing an entire coaching staff mid-season, the program is undeniably on a much stronger footing today that it was 3-1/2 years ago when Ron English was hired. On top of that, how willing do you think good up-and-coming coaches would be to come to Ypsilanti if the entire coaching staff is fired less than half a season after registering the school’s best record in 15 years? This should not, and will not happen.
Fans deciding they’re done with EMU football are probably not reasonable, although of course they’re entitled to their decision. I would hope that long-time fans would remember not only the 18-game losing streak of 2009-2010 but losses to far lesser FCS teams by the prior coaches: Jeff Genyk’s 2004 team lost to Eastern Illinois, while before him Jeff Woodruff’s teams lost to Indiana State in 2001 (21-14) and to Western Illinois in 2003 (34-12).
Suggestions that EMU should drop football to FCS are not reasonable. I’ve heard that the MAC defines itself as a football-first conference, meaning that if EMU took their football team out of the MAC, which would necessarily follow from dropping to FCS, they could no longer be full members of the conference and would have to find a new home across all sports. The best geographic fits would be the Missouri Valley Football Conference for football and the Horizon League for all other sports, but the level of competition in both those conferences is every bit as high as in the MAC. (Remember the other day when I told you that five MVFC teams are currently ranked in the FCS top-25? Yeah, that’ll be fun.)
Why has there been such an emotional, unreasoned response to this game?
There are a number of factors playing into this. First, expectations have been raised. This probably dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Homecoming game against Western Michigan last year. At that point the team had won the Michigan MAC Trophy and had a 5-3 record overall. The 3-1 MAC record had the Eagles tied with Northern Illinois and Ball State with games yet to play against both of them, and one game behind Toledo. Hopes were further raised when, before EMU’s next game, both Toledo and Ball State lost. With a win at home over Ball State — the team EMU beat on the road the year before to break that 18-game losing streak — the Eagles would be tied for the lead in the MAC West Division. Of course, EMU blew that game against Ball State, and went on to lose their last two games on the road by six points each. It was a disappointment after our hopes had been raised, but let’s remember, it was EMU’s best record in a decade-and-a-half.
Based on the 2011 season, hopes were high heading into 2012, particularly for the offense, which looked to feature a slew of returning starters. Despite a significantly more difficult schedule, we all had dreams of a bowl invitation, or even a conference championship on the 25th anniversary of EMU’s only previous MAC title. And despite the loss last week in Muncie, today was the home opener; it felt like a fresh start, a new season.
Then add to that the excitement many older alumni felt this week when they heard the news that the Huron logo was included on the new band uniforms, and what’s more, it was President Martin’s idea. Of course, it didn’t help matters any that some news outlets used misleading wording and headlines, causing some alumni to think that the university’s mascot was being changed back.
Then the game started. And we saw that monstrosity of a performance by the Eagles, by our Eagles, by our team that we thought could win EMU’s second championship in the Mid-American Conference, our team that we thought could give us an excuse for a December vacation to somewhere warm like…Boise, Idaho?
We saw turnover after turnover — five altogether — including one in the fourth quarter that will probably be on MAC blooper reels for a few years. We saw an offensive line that couldn’t open gaps for the running backs and couldn’t protect the quarterback. We saw gaffe after gaffe on special teams, including a personal foul on a punt extending an Illinois State drive after the EMU defense forced two three-and-outs to start the game (Ron English said he considers this sort of error on a fourth down punt to be equivalent to a turnover, and I tend to agree), a mishandled punt return that became another turnover, and an absurdly short missed field goal attempt. We saw an EMU defense that put almost no pressure on the Redbird offense, and finished the game with one sack and five tackles for losses.
But of course, the very act of English talking about it makes us more nervous than we otherwise would be. So, for a moment, let’s ignore all the chatter, including what English had to say, and just take a moment to consider what actually happened.
And since things have so gloom-and-doomy, let’s start with what I thought during the game was the bright spot for EMU — and after the game, English thought the same thing. Let’s start with the defense.
As has so often been the case over the last two years, after a quick glance at the box score or reading a superficial write-up of the game (ESPN, AP, etc.) you might think the defense was pretty terrible to allow 31 points by an FCS opponent, but once again you’d be wrong. For the most part the defense played well – occasionally very well — despite being repeatedly put in bad situations by blown plays on special teams and offense, against a high-powered offense that made some outstanding second-half adjustments, and did so without one of their top players, Marlon Pollard. Really. Consider that of Illinois State’s eight first-half possessions (not counting the last before halftime), EMU’s defense forced five three-and-outs (one of which was negated by a special teams penalty), forced one four-and-out over on downs, recovered a fumble to end one after three plays, and when a special teams fumble sent them right back out with a short field to defend after just forcing a three-and-out they held the Redbirds to a field goal. There was one notable defensive error in the first half (though again, the defense shouldn’t even have been on the field) when strong safety Kevin Johnson overcommitted toward the center, leaving a huge gap with no defenders from the near hash (where the center was lined up) all the way to the far yard numbers — that’s a gap roughly 24 yards wide! — and Jonathon Miller was able to cut to his right, get outside, and run 58 yards for a touchdown. Johnson did redeem himself somewhat a few possessions later when he broke up a pass that would have been a touchdown.
In the second half they didn’t do so well, but I have to think that part of that has to do with the EMU offense only staying on the field for about 8 minutes of the second half, forcing the defense to spend more than 21 minutes on the field. Again, that’s 21 minutes with the defense on the field just in the second half. Given how tired the defense must have been, I’m honestly surprised they played as well as they did! In short, despite losing a bunch of seniors from last year, the EMU defense is going to be OK. So chill out and stop calling for guys to be moved from the offensive line to the defensive line. It’s not needed, it wouldn’t help on either side of the ball, and it’s not going to happen. Despite a few breakdowns, particularly in the second half, I think the defense is largely on the right track. With regard to the defense, I feel pretty confident saying DON’T PANIC.
Special teams, on the other hand…well, they were “special” alright. (Note: I specifically exclude punter Jay Karutz from this criticism. I thought he played a great game, and got better as they day went on; his first five punts netted an average of 43 yards, and although his sixth punt was shorter, it went out of bounds at the 8 yard line.) After an excellent first punt by Karutz started the Redbirds on their own 8 yard line and the EMU defense held them to 8 yards in three plays, EMU looked set to get the ball with excellent field position, and indeed, Demarius Reed took a fair catch at the 50 yard line. Unfortunately the whole thing was negated by a personal foul on the play by Colin Weingrad, though it’s worth noting that Weingrad did nab an interception late in the third quarter. On Illinois State’s very next possession, the EMU defense again held them to three-and-out, but Demarius Reed fumbled the punt (according to Ron English, Reed said the sun was in his eyes, which is plausible considering the time of day and where he was on the field — but that’s something a punt returner has to be prepared to deal with) and the Redbirds recovered the ball.
And then there’s Kody Fulkerson’s pitiful field goal attempt at the beginning of the fourth quarter, which would have made it a one-possession game at 24-17. Pitiful is really the only word I have for that kick. I just don’t know how else to describe a kick that barely reached the height of the cross-bar and hit the ground before the back of the end zone. I’m not sure it was a fluke either, because earlier in the game his PATs (roughly equivalent to a 20-yard field goal attempt) barely cleared the cross-bar. Fulkerson was a slightly sub-par kicker last year, but what we saw yesterday was just plain pitiful.
As for the offense, they did manage a few really nice plays.
A 37-yard pass to a spectacular juggling catch by RB Bronson Hill out of the backfield (Hill is fast in the open field — he actually had to slow down and reach back to make the catch — and he seems to have good hands. He’s now EMU’s leading receiver by yards, with 2 catches for 70 yards, and I’d like to see more of him.) set up Garrett Hoskins’ 32-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing first down. I was puzzled how Hoskins got so open — I asked Ron English specifically about this play after the game — and after watching it several times now, I think it was the kind of designed misdirection play we’ve been asking for. The formation had fullback Matt Boyd and running back Dominique Sherrer in the backfield, Hoskins in close on the right, Quincy Jones on the left as the only wide receiver, and someone else who I can’t make out on the video (possibly either running back Javonti Greene or another tight end in close). It’s set up to look like a power running formation, and given EMU’s proclivity for that, the defense bites on the play-action. Hoskins just ran straight up the middle of the field and by the time the defenders realized their mistake and got turned around he was a good 7 to 10 yards beyond them. (Jones was also fairly open on that play, though he wasn’t quite as well-positioned as Hoskins.) This is exactly what English said when I asked him: “Teams know we want to run the ball, and they know we’re going to stay persistent with that…Guys are open off of play-action fakes and that.”
What I don’t understand is why we aren’t seeing more of this.
EMU’s other touchdown came on a power run by Gillett. Lined up with three wide receivers on third-and-goal from the 5 yard line, both guards pull to the C gap (between the left tackle and tight end), with right guard Bobby McFadden (I think) coming across as a lead blocker for Gillett. Aside from using the quarterback as the ball carrier, this is textbook power running.
Unfortunately, those good plays were significantly overshadowed by Gillett’s four turnovers: a fumble near the end of the first quarter (bailed out by a four-down defensive stop), an interception midway through the second quarter (bailed out by Cy Maughmer recovering an Illinois State fumble forced by Omar McFarlane — nice play from two youngsters on EMU’s defensive line), and two fourth-quarter interceptions (one leading to the Redbirds’ final touchdown, the other allowing the Redbirds to run out the clock).
The biggest problem for the offense was the offensive line, which by-and-large, did not get the job done. In pass-protection, it seemed like Illinois State was getting into the backfield all afternoon, and the stats reflect that, with three sacks and seven hurries. Even more disturbing, the run-blocking, at which this unit truly excelled last year, was really not there. Only four carries went for more than 10 yards (13 yards by Gillett, 15 yards by Gillett, 10 yards by Sherrer, and 19 yards by Greene), and when you take out those four carries, EMU averaged about 1.6 yards per play on the other 28 carries. This is the aspect of yesterday’s game that has me most concerned, and it’s the problem that absolutely must be fixed if this team is to have any semblance of a decent season.
Right now, this is not an offense that will get it done in the MAC, but my real concern, the deeper concern, is that, aside from moments here and there, we really haven’t seen meaningful offensive improvement since Ron English has been here. That’s not his area of expertise, to be sure, and he’s done a nice job of fixing what was a terrible defense (and I think this year’s defense will be OK), but that makes it all the more important that he have good assistants in place for the offense. Although I’m sure some of the positional coaches are doing a good job, as a whole, the offense is not where it should be and shows no sign of getting any better. At this point in English’s fourth season, that can’t be blamed on anyone except the offensive coaching staff and Ken Karcher as offensive coordinator.