Eastern Michigan has been blown out by an average of nearly 30 points during its last three games, but one area in which the Eagles excel is third-down defense.
In the last three games, the Eagles’ defense has allowed opponents to convert 23.3 percent of third downs. Overall, Eastern is tops in the Mid-American Conference at a 31.1 percent clip and 27th nationally.
It’s a stat that certainly stands out to the University at Buffalo (2-2), which hosts Eastern Michigan (1-3, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) Saturday in its league opener.
“They’ve got our full attention in terms of making sure we do a great job on our first- and second-down plays offensively against their defense and still be able to convert,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “The flip side holds true for our defense.”
On Sept. 7 at Penn State, the EMU defense allowed just one third-down conversion in 10 attempts, close to perfection. But Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg hit the throws that mattered to lead his team to a 45-7 romp. The next week at Rutgers – a 28-10 loss – they held the Scarlet Knights to 1 for 8 on third down, a 12.5 percent rate.
“They have an aggressive defense – they’re in your face – they’re hard working and relentless to the ball,” UB senior wide receiver Alex Neutz said. “On third and long, they send a little more pressure. Third down is like fourth down to them, and they try and get the ball back in the offense’s hands and get them on the field.”
Even in their 51-20 blowout loss at home to Ball State two weeks ago, the Eagles held the Cardinals to conversions on 5 of 12 on third downs (41.6 percent), a ratio most coaches can live with.
Eastern Michigan has forced 14 three-and-outs this season, including a high of five against Penn State.
In last Saturday’s romp over UConn, the Bulls were 6 of 14 on third down but because of their sizable lead, none of the failures proved to be pivotal. Still, UB has enjoyed only middling success on third down and ranks 11th in the 13-team MAC in that department.
Joe Licata is the type of quarterback who has frustrated Eastern Michigan: a patient pocket passer with accuracy who isn’t afraid to go deep. He bounced back nicely after an uneven performance against Stony Brook with a career-best three touchdown passes against UConn.
“Joe has been very accurate in his throws downfield,” Quinn said. “We saw that with Alex Neutz in the Baylor game. … Same thing holds true for this game: We’re going to have to take some shots.”
UB will use a blueprint similar to Ball State’s. The Cardinals’ Keith Wenning set up a touchdown run that gave them a 44-20 lead with a 50-yard pass to Jordan Williams. Wenning also had a 31-yard TD pass to Williams in the second quarter.
“If you look at Ball State and how they were able to put 51 points on their defense, they made some incredible throws and catches in some very tight coverage situations,” Quinn said. “So we’re going to have to have that same type of mentality going into this one.”
Defending on third down is often a delicate balance between the pass rushers who get after the quarterback and the secondary whose job it is to lock down the receivers. Whatever problems Eastern Michigan has on the first two downs, the unit seems to play in harmony on third down.
The pass rush has been especially effective with 12 sacks – one behind UB. The Eagles rank fifth in the conference and 16th nationally. Linebacker Pat O’Conner leads them with three sacks.
“They are a bunch of high-effort guys, they really take pride in stepping up on defense,” UB sophomore tight end Matt Weiser said. “It’s a matter of us stepping up and taking pride in our offense and moving the ball.”
Sophomore tailback Anthone Taylor remains under suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules, although coach Jeff Quinn said Tuesday the suspension is “day-to-day.”
“He’s right now suspended, currently, until we find out further information in the process,” Quinn said. “Right now, it’s a day-to-day situation.”
Taylor was not listed on the depth chart for Saturday’s Homecoming game. Taylor, the team’s second-leading rusher, was suspended for last Saturday’s game against UConn. Taylor has rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
The backup tailback to Branden Oliver for the Eastern Michigan game is junior James Potts, who was solid last Saturday in running for 38 yards on 13 carries.
“James is an instinctive runner. He certainly has a good burst and has trained himself,” Quinn said. “James has found a way to capitalize on his opportunities.”
Sophomore Robert Blodgett will again start at right guard in place of Dillon Guy and Quinn indicated it could be long term. Guy missed the UConn game with an ankle injury.
“I think Bobby showed that he potentially is going to be that guy at right guard,” Quinn said.
Other changes on the depth chart include junior Devon Hughes moving ahead of senior Natey Adjei as starter Fred Lee’s backup at wide receiver, while the Bulls will start either senior Alex Dennison or sophomore Kendall Patterson at fullback. Patterson, who converted from nose guard, started against Baylor and UConn.
On defense, Dwellie Striggles is now the backup corner to Najja Johnson ahead of Carlos Lammons.