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Happy Thanksgiving! Q&A wth Eagle Totem

Eastern Michigan (yes, EMU) has a blog.  It is called Eagle Totem.  I have asked questions and he has answered in series of paragraphs.  Enjoy!

1. First of all, how good does it feel to already have two wins under your belt so far this year?  Is the Ron English era starting off as you had envisioned it?

Coming into the Ron English era, I don't think anyone imagined that his first two years would be quite this bad. Under Jeff Genyk, the Eagles had a reasonably good offense; they scored 108 points in their last two games under Genyk. A lot of fans thought the offense would pick up right where it left off, and English would quickly improve the defense. Instead, it took Ron English's team seven games to match what Genyk's team had scored in the final two, and the defense has continued to be the worst in the country.

All that said, it can take a few years to turn around a really bad college football team -- and let's make no bones about it, EMU has probably been the worst team in the country over the past 10 years. Unlike basketball, where you can bring in a great class of freshmen and have them make an impact right away (see: Kentucky in 2009), college football tends to be dominated by upperclassmen in their third, fourth, and even fifth years, so it takes a while for recruiting improvements to translate into on-field improvements. It's also worth noting that since Ron English took over, EMU has not played a single FCS team. The non-conference games the last two years have been Ohio State, Michigan, Arkansas, Northwestern, Virginia, Vanderbilt, and Army (twice). I'd be willing to bet that this has been one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the country over a two year period.

Before this season started I was predicting 2-4 wins for EMU. I was sweating that prediction for a while, but they managed to squeak in to the bottom of that range last week, and that was a huge relief!

Looking ahead, I'm moderately optimistic for the next two years. EMU is losing a talented running back in Dwayne Priest, but anticipating Alex Gillett together with Javonti Greene and Mike Marrow (transfer from Alabama) in the backfield, I'm not really worried about the future of the Eagles' running game. They'll also be returning most of the offensive and defensive lines next year. For a very early prediction, I think 3-5 wins is reasonable for next year (keep in mind that EMU hasn't even had a five-win season since 1995), and in 2012 the Eagles may register their first winning season in nearly two decades.

2. What are QB Alex Gillett's strengths and how else can the Eagles beat you on the offensive end?

It's hardly a glowing endorsement of a quarterback to say that his biggest strength is his ability to run the ball, but in Gillett's case it's true. I was so unimpressed with his ability as a passer that for the first few games of the season I was calling for him to be the backup quarterback behind Devontae Payne. But Payne struggled every time he got a chance, while Gillett has slowly -- much more slowly than I would have liked -- improved as a passer. I'm still not thrilled with his passing -- I've seen way to many drive-killing incompletions and interceptions this fall -- but by and large, it's no longer a liability to the team, and if he continues this rate of improvement, he should be a decent passer next fall.
For years, I've said that I'd rather have great offensive and defensive lines and mediocre skill players than great skill players with mediocre lines (though of course ideally I want great players throughout!). English seems to be putting a big emphasis building out from the trenches, and I think it's going to spell success within the next few years.

Where EMU's offense is strong, and will continue to strengthen for the next couple years, is in ball control. The Eagles have had more time of possession, by a fair margin, in each of their last six games. In the last two games, they averaged more than 38 minutes of offense. As Gillett continues to improve as a passer, they've been able to close out more and more of those drives by scoring, rather than driving from 25 to 25 and then giving the ball up. EMU is slowly turning into a very tough, physical team that can just wear down opposing defenses. They're not there yet, but they're showing signs that they're close.

3. Looking at the statistics the defense seems like a black hole.  What bright spots do you see on this side of the ball and what can we expect in the future?

Bright spots on EMU's defense have been few and far between in 2009 and 2010. I think the main hope here is that Ron English's one great season of defense at Michigan wasn't a fluke, that he really knows what he's doing on that side of the ball, and that he's bringing in young talent that will give EMU a much more competitive defense in 2011 and 2012. The Eagles will be returning an awful lot of starters next year; by my count only four defenders on the two-deep are in their final year of eligibility.

 4. What's up with the announced attendances at Rynearson Stadium being extremely overcounted?  There may be NIU fans outnumbering EMU fans this weekend.

I've written about this several times. Technically they're not overcounted. The NCAA gives schools the option of reporting in-person attendance or tickets sold. Before the season started, EMU Athletic Director Derrick Gragg stated that the school would be reporting based on tickets sold this year, and there's no question that this is what they've done. Part of the trick here is that the tickets "sold" include a large quantity -- let's just call it tens of thousands and leave it at that -- bought by PepsiCo as a condition of their campus vending contract. Here's what I had to say about attendance before the season, here's a full explanation of what EMU is doing this year, and here's an interesting item about what an Italian soccer team is doing about their attendance problem.

5. How have you enjoyed your first football season blogging about Eastern Michigan?  What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

Probably the biggest challenge, but also the biggest advantage to blogging about EMU is the dearth of other coverage. The Detroit newspapers, the News and the Free Press, cover the pro teams and the University of Michigan first, Michigan State second, and every other school/team only nominally, which is to say that you'd be better informed reading the school's press releases than reading either newspaper. The Ann Arbor News folded a couple years ago -- not that they really covered EMU either -- and the online organization they evolved into, frankly, sucks. Ypsilanti has a weekly newspaper which doesn't really do much of their own reporting. So aside from the school's press releases and the student newspaper, the Eastern Echo, I'm pretty much it. The stuff about attendance is an example of this.In another town, at another school, there would be a professional reporter all over the attendance gimmicks, but for EMU, it's just me.

What that means is that unlike bloggers covering, say, the Michigan Wolverines, I can't just read what professional reporters have written and then spout off about my opinion. In a lot of cases, there's no published source covering basic facts, so I often have to start with a bit of research. That's the downside.

The upside is that, as readership grows, I think I'll have a real chance to set the agenda myself, rather than responding to and commenting on what other people are already talking about. That's tremendously exciting, and that's part of the reason I chose to start blogging about EMU.

6. Predictions? Any chance of an upset?

In my game preview, I estimated about a 1% chance of an upset, and I stand by that. Northern Illinois is realistically the second-best team the Eagles have faced this season. The only hope I see involves an injury to either Spann or Harnish, a terrible game by the rest of the Huskies, and a career best from Alex Gillett and an EMU running back (either Dwayne Priest or Javonti Greene).