By Chris Pika
After a pair of exciting high-scoring games in Nassau, today’s third edition of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will be contested between two schools that are familiar with each other, and whose styles promise another entertaining game in Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
Eastern Michigan won one game last season. But, behind a strong offensive effort, the Eagles tied the best turnaround in FBS in 2016, notching seven wins behind a prolific offense and they make their first bowl appearance since the 1987 California Bowl. This is the eighth season of collegiate play for Old Dominion, and the Monarchs will play in their first bowl game in the school’s second full season of eligibility, thanks in large part to a high-scoring offense and an opportunistic defense.
Both teams are anxious to prove themselves on the bowl stage, after enjoying the sun, warm weather and hospitality that the Bahamas and the Atlantis resort is known for during bowl week. The schools are familiar with each other as they played a two-game series in 2014 and 2015. ODU won both games, each one a close affair.
Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion enter the bowl with a combined 16 victories, the most in the three years of the bowl. EMU went 7-5, 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference. Two of the Eagles’ victories came against teams that played in conference championship games: Ohio (MAC) and Wyoming (Mountain West). ODU is the bowl’s first nine-win team at 9-3, and the Monarchs’ 7-1 league record was the same as East Division champ WKU, which took the division title based on a head-to-head victory. ODU has won five straight and eight of the last nine games.
For Eastern Michigan, the Eagles offense under head coach Chris Creighton (10-26 in three years at EMU; 149-72 in 20 seasons overall) set a school record for total offense yards (5,447), passing yards (3,549), total points (365) and touchdown passes (23). The Eagles are 36th in FBS total offense at 453.9 yards per game. Redshirt junior quarterback Brogan Roback has been chiefly responsible for the Eagles’ success through the air as he has found a trio of junior receivers – Sergio Bailey II, Antoine Porter and Johnnie Niupalau – and a pair of redshirt freshmen: Nigel Kilby and Dieuly Aristilde. The five have caught 19 of the 23 Eagles passing TDs in 2016.
Roback, in just nine games and six starts, completed 193 passes for 2,394 yards and 16 touchdowns as the Eagles are 17th in FBS passing offense at 295.8 yards per game. Bailey caught 55 passes for 799 yards and six touchdowns, while Porter had 44 receptions for 491 yards and four TDs. Kilby added 437 reception yards and four TDs.
The Eagles also get it done on the ground, averaging 158.2 yards per game behind redshirt sophomore Ian Eriksen, who rushed for 741 yards and nine touchdowns and redshirt freshman Breck Turner, who added four rushing TDs. Five players have 40 or more carries this season.
EMU’s very experienced offensive line has combined to allow the 12th-fewest sacks and second-fewest tackles for loss in FBS.
Eastern Michigan has been very successful in the red zone, scoring on 47 (34 touchdowns/13 field goals) of 52 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, good for 19th in FBS.
The Eagles defense have forced 23 turnovers, which is 20th in FBS and second in the MAC. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Kyle Rachwal led EMU with 101 tackles, while redshirt senior defensive lineman Pat O’Connor posted eight sacks on the way to first-team All-MAC honors. Senior defensive back DaQuan Pace led the Eagles with three interceptions.
Old Dominion is led by head coach Bobby Wilder (66-30 in eight seasons overall and at Old Dominion), the only coach the school has had since re-starting the football program in 2009. The Monarchs offense has nine games of 30 or more points, including each game of the current five-game win streak as ODU averages 36 points per game overall.
The Monarchs average 433.9 yards per game on offense with a balanced attack. Redshirt senior quarterback David Washington has completed 191 passes for2,648 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He is one of four quarterbacks in FBS to have more than 25 TDs and four or less interceptions.
Washington’s top three receivers have accounted for 23 of his 28 TD passes in 2016. Redshirt senior Zach Pascal caught 63 passes for 893 yards (14.2 yards per catch average) and eight touchdowns while extending his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 48, tied for the second-longest streak in FBS. Junior Jonathan Duhart had 45 receptions for 690 yards (15.3 yards per reception) and eight TDs, while seven of redshirt sophomore Travis Fulgham’s 28 catches have been for touchdowns.
Old Dominion’s rushing attack averages 196.1 yards per game, paced by junior Ray Lawry. Lawry rushed for 1,122 yards (102 yards per game) and 11 touchdowns. He rushed for over 100 yards in six games in 2016, including a 27-carry, 209-yard effort against Marshall. Sophomore Jeremy Cox ran for 685 yards and led the Monarchs with 13 rushing TDs.
Defensively, the Monarchs are led by senior linebackers TJ Ricks and Anthony Wilson. Ricks paced ODU with 93 total tackles (44 solo) on the way to first-team All-Conference USA honors. Wilson added 90 total tackles (49 solo), including five sacks. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Oshane Ximines set a school season record with 7.5 sacks and redshirt junior defensive end Bunmi Rotimi added seven sacks. ODU is fourth in FBS in turnover margin at +13 (22 takeaways/9 giveaways). Six players have recorded an interception, led by senior cornerback Aaron Young with three picks.
There will be plenty of talented players to watch when Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion take the field, and if history holds, the team holding The Prime Minister’s Trophy at the end of the game will have earned the title in a hard-fought game that will add to the lore of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.