While some teams may go through the motions during bowl season, others see it as a way to put an exclamation point on an already strong year.
Put Eastern Michigan in the second category.
The Eagles had a strong regular season, finishing tied for first with Toledo in the Mid-American Conference East Division with 5-3 records. Toledo, on the basis of a 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan, earned the berth into the MAC title game, where the Rockets won the title with a 17-7 victory over Ohio.
Still Eastern Michigan earned a berth into the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, where the Eagles (excuse the expression) mashed San Jose State 41-27.
That ended the season 9-4 for Eastern Michigan.
To put things in perspective, it was only the second bowl win in school history. The first was a 30-27 victory in the 1987 California Bowl over none other than San Jose State.
It was only the sixth bowl appearance in school history and five have come under the guidance of coach Chris Creighton. For those college football programs that fire coaches on a whim, Eastern Michigan’s patience with Creighton has paid off. Eastern Michigan was 4-20 the two seasons before the hiring of Creighton. He went 3-21 his first two seasons, but the Eagles were 7-6 in 2016 and earned the second bowl appearance in school history.
Last year the Eagles went 7-6, led by transfer quarterback Ben Bryant, who spent his first three seasons backing up Desmond Ridder at Cincinnati. Then in a strange twist, Bryant left Eastern Michigan after one season to return to Cincinnati after Ridder departed for the NFL, where he was drafted in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons.
Bryant had an up-and-down season at Cincinnati.
The quarterback situation could be described as the same at Eastern Michigan.
Graduate student Taylor Powell was the starter at the beginning of the season, but he missed some time due to injury and some ineffectiveness. Sophomore Austin Smith saw considerable action, but didn’t play again after suffering an injury early during a 31-24 win at Kent State on Nov. 16. Powell, who previously played at Missouri and Troy, would play his best football of the season in those final three games.
During those three contests, wins over Kent State, Central Michigan, and San Jose State, Powell completed 72 of 105 passes (68.5%) for 879 yards, eight touchdowns, and one interception.
Powell was named the MVP of the bowl game by completing 18 of 30 for 298 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
What was impressive about the bowl win was that Eastern Michigan trailed 13-0 just past the midway point of the first quarter and didn’t blink. The Eagles proceeded to score 33 unanswered points.
The defense and special teams were as impressive as the offense. Sophomore defensive back Joshua Scott had four pass breakups and an interception. Trailing 13-0, junior Sterling Miles blocked a PAT, and teammate Tristen Hines returned it 96 yards for a two-point score.
Apparently blocking kicks isn’t luck for Miles. This was his third blocked kick of the season.
So this was a total team effort, and Eastern Michigan’s previous history details how big this win was. The Eagles finished with exactly nine wins for the first time ever. It was the school’s second-best win total – in 131 years of playing football.
The top season was 1987, the previously mentioned time frame when Eastern Michigan went 10-2 and beat San Jose in the California Bowl.
In another year of firsts, graduate student defensive end Jose Ramirez became Eastern Michigan’s first-ever MAC Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-2, 255-pound Ramirez entered the bowl season leading the nation with 12 sacks, a total he finished with in 13 games. He ended with 19.5 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
Even without a trip to the MAC championship, the personal and team accomplishments certainly marked a season to remember for Eastern Michigan.