AMHERST — Eastern Michigan may not be anybody’s idea of a great football program. Don’t say that to UMass football coach Walt Bell, because the third-year head coach has the Eagles’ blueprint on building a team and a program in his Amherst office.
“They are a direct mirror of what we hope to build here,” Bell said. “They’ve done it the right way. [Chris Creighton] is an unbelievable football coach. They’re unbelievably well-prepared. It’s now in his sixth year. He’s got a veteran group. They’ve been there. They have great staff continuity.
“They are a great, great opponent for us, because ultimately, that’s what we aspire to be.”
The 0-2 Minutemen will host the 1-1 Eagles at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in a non-conference game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on NESN-Plus.
These two teams haven’t played each other since UMass was a member of the Mid-American Conference, and the Minutemen hold a 2-0 advantage over EMU. UMass beat Eastern Michigan 36-14, back in 2014, when the Minutemen called Gillette Stadium home. The next year, UMass went to Ypsilanti, and came home with a 28-17 win.
Eastern Michigan was coached then by Creighton. Those were his first two seasons as head coach, seasons where the Eagles went 2-10 and 1-11.
After going 3-22 in the first two years, Creighton has guided the Eagles to a 28-30 record in the next five years. That run included appearances in the 2016 Bahamas Bowl and the 2018 Camelia Bowl. Eastern Michigan lost to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl, and two years later lost to Georgia Southern in the Camelia Bowl.
“I know that Coach Creighton would take this as the ultimate compliment. In all three phases of the game, they’re simple, they’re sound, they do an unbelievable job in terms of communication and alignment. They play unbelievably hard. They block, they tackle, they’re sound,” Bell said during a midweek video conference with reporters. “Nothing they do is fancy. Everything they do is hard, is tough, is blue collar, is workman-like, is sound, is technique, is fundamentals. Their entire program is built around out-executing. That doesn’t make them fancy. That doesn’t mean they do anything, X and O-wise that’s never been done before. They do a tremendous job of reducing the game to technique and effort.
“That’s what’s allowed them to go from a job that everybody in this profession thought was a coach’s graveyard and you could never win there, into a team that’s consistently in bowl games.”
UMass will try to end a 13-game losing streak that dates back to the 2019 season.
The Minutemen entered practice this week coming off a 45-28 loss to Boston College of the ACC. It was the second week in a row that Bell’s Minutemen had played an ACC team, losing at Pitt 51-7 the previous Saturday. Unlike the Pitt game, the game at McGuirk was competitive. UMass trailed by two scores for much of the game and was down by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter. Being closer to BC than to Pitt did seem to have an impact on practice.
“Practice was more amped up. Guys were more focused on the details,” UMass receiver Eric Collins, a transfer from North Carolina State, said during a video conference. “We just want to be better than we were last week. That’s what we focused on at practice, being better than last week and doing our jobs at a high level.”
The Minutemen will come into the game more than a little banged up. Nine players off of the UMass two-deep were on the sidelines early in the week and for most of them, their appearance Saturday is up in the air. One is not.
Bell met with reporters after Wednesday’s practice and said that Lytle will likely be on the sideline for the second consecutive week.
“I would not expect Lytle to play,” Bell told the Daily Collegian. “I think Brady Olson might have to play again this weekend.”
The UMass coach said that it’s tough to see that many guys on the sidelines, but he added that with a full allotment of 110 on the roster, it’s next man up.
“We’re beat up. That’s what you get when you play two ACC opponents in the first two games,” Bell said. “How many of those guys make it back for game day is yet to be seen. That’s why you recruit. Next guy up. We’ve got to figure it out and then go play.”
Eastern Michigan opened its season with a 35-15 win over Division I-FCS Saint Francis (Pa.), but came back on Sept. 11, and dropped a 34-7 decision at Wisconsin. It was a game where the Eagles didn’t get a first down until the second half.
“Super proud of our defense and how hard they fought. They only played 75 plays. I said ‘only’ because it seemed like 150,” Creighton said during a conference with reporters. “Offensively, we just couldn’t get first downs to get them off the field.”
That sounded somewhat like what happened to the Minutemen against Pittsburgh.
“I think the first thing that our staff has said, watching the film, is how much better they are,” Creighton said of UMass. “We’ve studied the film from ‘20. They’re a lot better than they were in ‘20. I watch more of their defense than I do of their offense, because I help out on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Eagles play two quarterbacks, junior Preston Hutchinson and senior Ben Bryant. The Eagles were 10 of 20 against Wisconsin for only 76 yards. They were picked off once.
Hutchinson is the starter, with Bryant coming off the bench.
While by now, everyone expects Olson to get his second start, Creighton was asked about trying to prepare for both Lytle and Olson.
“You’re always trying to figure that out,” the EMU coach said. “They’re probably doing the same with us. You’ve got to be ready for everything. At the same time, you want to try to deduce what they’re going to do and who they’re going to play, and put a plan together against that person.”