A year ago, the Eastern Michigan offense accepted the job of body artist in its game against Army. The Eagles tattooed the Black Knights. The team that scored 48 points in that victory was led by quarterback Tyler Benz, who threw for 369 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Bronson Hill rushed for 185 yards, ran for one touchdown and caught another. Eastern Michigan plays Army Saturday at Michie Stadium. Benz and Hill are both back.
“Eastern Michigan is a challenge,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “They are a bunch of guys, especially on the offensive side of the ball, that we have seen before, and they competed with us a year ago. They, like us, have struggled against some very high-quality opponents like Penn State and Ball State. They do a few things that Boston College does, especially in their run game. They’ve got a back that was a nightmare for us a year ago. We have to go back and correct and fix some things that were a challenge for us last week, and we have to do it while we’re recovering and recuperating and getting some guys back on the field. We have a lot of work to get done this week on a couple of levels. First and foremost, we have to be excited to play because they will be, and it is going to be a hard-fought football game. We can’t wait.”
Perhaps the Army offense can say the same. Eastern Michigan is 1-5, and after their season-opening victory over Howard, its five straight defeats include 45-7 to Penn State, 51-20 to Ball State and, last week, 42-14 to Buffalo. During that five-game losing streak, the Eagles have been outscored 166-51.
“We’ve given up too many big plays,” Eastern Michigan coach Ron English said. “As you can tell by the tone of my voice, I’m frustrated with our run defense. I’m frustrated with the defense, period. It’s ridiculous. The way we play defense is a travesty."
Its offense has been playing come-from-behind football all season, which might account for Benz having completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,029 yards. Hill, in contrast, has been held to just under 59 yards rushing per game. Awful defense, mediocre offense. Sound good? Not to Ellerson.
“They’re running the same offense [as last season],” Ellerson said. “They do so many things on offense. They bootleg and sprint out, so they’re a formidable group. Some of the things we saw from Stanford and the things we saw from Boston College are also in their approach. They’ve struggled at times this year, but they’ve also taken your breath away at times. They’re pretty well balanced in their attack.”
If Army stands a chance of a mid-season turnaround, it must certainly start with this game. Of its succeeding five games, the only home game is against Western Kentucky Nov. 9. The Black Knights have two lengthy-away games, playing Air Force Nov. 2 in Colorado Springs and Hawaii Nov. 30 in Honolulu. Of course, there’s also that annual tete-a-tete with Navy in Philadelphia Dec. 14.
What the Black Knights have done, due to the depth of their offensive backfield, is give their opponents a lot to think about. In their loss last week to Boston College 13 players had touches in the backfield. Of the team’s 326 yards rushing, Larry Dixon led with 125.
“When you’re running the option, your opponent is going to determine who gets the ball on every snap,” Ellerson said. “In some of those called gives, we can put the ball in Larry Dixon’s hands or we can put the ball in Terry Baggett’s hands. Terry, by any estimation, is a go-to back. He’s a guy you’d love to pitch the ball to in space. He’s a guy you’d love to get the ball to in a power set, but when we’re in a balanced set, our opponent can dictate who’s going to touch it. Trenton Turrentine is doing a soldierly job on the other side. He’s maybe not as explosive as the other guys, but he gets what’s there and he’s a dependable blocker.”
A coach is happy with any kind of touchdown, of course, but if it’s all the same with Ellerson, he’d prefer a few of those lo-o-o-n-g, time-consuming drives. Of Army’s three touchdowns against Boston College, two were slam dunks – a 75-yard touchdown pass from Angel Santiago to Xavier Moss and an 80-yard touchdown run by Dixon.
“We’re not going to take a knee after we make x amount of yards,” he said. “When we go out there and score fast we are not going to bat an eye. We play a style where when we play that type of opponent then we want to create a shorter game. We want to be productive and stay in bounds. We don’t necessarily anticipate that we are going to rip off those huge plays, but we’re not surprised when it happens. We were down [defensive back] Josh [Jenkins] in the first half and we wanted to make that half a short half because we didn’t see their punting unit until the first part of the second half. The good news is we were scoring right there with them. We were going hand in hand in the middle of the third quarter.”
It was in the fourth quarter that Boston College put the game away with 10 unanswered points. Army can ill afford another late-game defensive meltdown against Eastern Michigan. Were Benz connecting or Hill running rampant, there’s reason to believe a repeat of last season’s debacle could occur. And, with that, perhaps, the season. Ellerson is not pleased with the picture Eastern Michigan saw of Army last week.
“They are going to be encouraged by the things that they have been seeing because they will be able to see the similarities [with Boston College] in their style of play,” he said. “Conversely, we have to get some things straight to be able to hold up.”