The Flames will look to wrap up their third season in a row with a bowl game win when the Flames square off against Eastern Michigan at the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday in Mobile, Ala.
5:45 p.m. (EST)
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Color Commentator: Mark Herzlich
Sideline Reporter: Jalyn Johnson
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Saturday’s Top Storylines
- Liberty (7-5) will aim for its third bowl game victory in its third season of FBS bowl eligibility when it matches up against Eastern Michigan (7-5, 4-4 MAC) in the LendingTree Bowl.
- Liberty was the Cure Bowl champion in 2019 and 2020. The Flames are looking to join Appalachian State as the only teams to win bowl games in their first three seasons of bowl eligibility after transitioning from FCS to FBS football.
- Liberty’s only previous matchup with Eastern Michigan (Oct. 14, 1989) was a historic game for the Flames. Eric Green, the program’s only NFL first-round draft pick, caught the winning TD pass with 11 seconds remaining to give the Flames their first-ever win over an FBS opponent, 25-24.
- The Flames are 2-0 when playing in Alabama this season, including a 21-13 victory at Troy (Sept. 11) and a 36-12 win at UAB (Oct. 2).
- In his third season as Liberty’s head coach, Hugh Freeze has posted a 25-11 record, including a 19-6 mark over the last 25 games. He is 2-0 in bowl games and 1-0 versus MAC opponents during his time with the Flames.
- Liberty QB Malik Willis has accounted for a program-record 35 TDs (24 passing/11 rushing) this season. He rushed for four TDs during last year’s 37-34 (OT) Cure Bowl win over Coastal Carolina. Willis will return to Hancock Whitney Stadium for the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
A Liberty Win Would …
- Mark the Flames’ third bowl victory in their third year of full FBS bowl eligibility. They would join Appalachian State (2015-20) as the only teams to win bowl games in each of their first three years after transitioning from FCS to FBS.
- Give the Flames their 13th season in program history with eight or more wins, including their third in a row. They would join Appalachian State (2015-present) and Marshall (1997-2003) as the only FBS programs to win eight or more games in each of their first three seasons as fully bowl eligible FBS members after transitioning from FCS.
- Make the Flames the first FBS independent team to win a bowl game in three straight seasons since Army (2016-18).
- Boost Hugh Freeze’s official record coaching in bowl games to 5-1, including 3-0 at Liberty. (Ole Miss’s victory in the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl was vacated.)
- Mark the Flames’ third win in Alabama this season, making Liberty the first FBS team in 2021 to win three games in a single state outside of its home state.
MOBILE, Ala. (EMUEagles.com) – The Eastern Michigan University football team will play in its fourth bowl game in the last six years when it participates in the 23rd Annual LendingTree Bowl Saturday, Dec. 18, in Mobile, Ala. The Eagles finished the regular season with a 7-5 mark and 4-4 record in Mid-American Conference. EMU made appearances in the 2016 Bahamas Bowl, the 2018 Camellia Bowl, and the 2019 Quick Lane Bowl.
Eastern will meet Liberty University in a matchup of the Mid-American Conference against an FBS Independent, the first in the bowl’s history. Liberty is making its third bowl appearance in just its third full season at the FBS level under head coach Hugh Freeze. The Flames have played in the Cure Bowl each of the last two seasons. Liberty defeated Georgia Southern 23-16 in 2019 and knocked off No. 9 Coastal Carolina 37-34 last year. The Lynchburg, Va.-based institution finished 7-5 during the regular season.
Kickoff from South Alabama’s Hancock Whitney Stadium is set for 4:45 p.m. CT (5:45 p.m. ET) and the contest will be broadcast on ESPN. Chris Cotter and Mark Herzlich will be in the booth, while Jalyn Johnson reports from the sideline. The game will also be aired on WEMU (89.1 FM) with veteran broadcasters Matt Shepard and Rob Rubick calling the action on the field. WEMU’s special 30-minute pregame show from the stadium begins at 4:15 p.m. CT (5:15 p.m. ET.)
EARNING THE EIGHTH: The Eagles head into their fourth bowl game in nearly three decades in search of their eighth win of the season, currently posting a 7-5 overall record. Eastern Michigan has not posted eight wins in a season since 1987, when EMU finished the season 10-2 under Jim Harkema. If the Eagles were to defeat Liberty, it would be just the seventh time in EMU’s 130-year history that the Green and White have posted eight-or-more wins in a season.
FIRST TIME ACCOMPLISHMENT: Eastern Michigan will add another to its lists of “firsts,” under eighth-year Head Coach Chris Creighton in 2021. With its selection to the LendingTree bowl, Eastern will make three consecutive bowl appearances (excluding COVID-shortened 2019 season) for the first time in program history.
WHAT’S STILL AT STAKE: Plenty of opportunities to cement the team’s legacy still await Eastern Michigan in its postseason bowl contest. A win would give EMU just its second in program history and its first since the 1987 California Bowl (EMU defeated San Jose State).
NOT ONE, NOT TWO, BUT…: In going to a bowl game for the third time in four seasons, 30 student-athletes will have the opportunity to do something that only one other group in program history has accomplished previously – play in three bowl games. Those 30 student-athletes participated in the 2018 Camellia Bowl, 2019 Quick Lane Bowl, and will now play in the 2021 LendingTree Bowl.
Some 24 student-athletes became the first group to accomplish the feat in 2019 when EMU played in Detroit. That group saw action in the 2016 Bahamas bowl before playing in the Camellia and Quick Lane Bowls, respectively.
POSTSEASON TEAMS: EMU’s 2021 regular season included games against seven teams that will close out their schedules in the postseason. Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Miami, Ball State, Toledo, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan will all make Bowl appearances in 2021.
Eastern’s five losses have come against teams that are a combined 24-17 in conference play (.590) and are 32-29 overall. Four of the five teams are set to play in the postseason.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA: EMU has played just one previous game in the State of Alabama – the 2018 Camellia Bowl. That game, played Dec. 15, 2018, saw the Eagles fall, 23-21, when Georgia Southern kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. Eastern is 1-0 all-time against institutions from the state, after earning a 14-7 victory over Alabama State inside Rynearson Stadium, Sept. 10, 2011.
THE CREIGHTON DIFFERENCE: Head Coach Chris Creighton has won 50 percent (34-of-68) of his games since the start of the 2016 season. In the three seasons prior to his arrival in Ypsilanti, the Eagles were victorious in just 28 percent (10-of-36) of their games.
GET READY FOR EXCITEMENT: One of the most entertaining teams in college football, Eastern Michigan is one of just three FBS squads to have multiple wins by a one-point margin this season (Miami, 13-12; WMU, 22-21). Coincidentally, the other two teams that can make that claim also reside in the Mid-American Conference (Northern Illinois 3, Buffalo 2).
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE: A common goal in Head Coach Chris Creighton‘s program, Eastern has won or tied (28 wins, 4 ties) the turnover battle in 32 of its last 34 victories under Creighton.
CONTINUING TO FLUSH IT: Eastern’s motto has been to go 1-0 each week while “flushing” the previous outcome. The short-term memory has proven beneficial for the program, with 41 of the last 69 (59%) contests decided by eight points-or-less. Eight games have been decided in overtime with 19 coming down to the final play.
OH SO CLOSE: The Eagles have played in 41 one-score games since the beginning of the 2016 season, and hold an 18-23 record in those contests. The setbacks have been by an average of less than six points. Overall, 21 of the 41 games have been decided by three points-or-less.
According to ESPN, since 2018 only one team has recorded more one-possession heartbreaks – Nebraska. The Huskers have 20 losses of the sort, while EMU has 15.
STRAIGHT FROM THE BEAR: The EMU Office of Athletic Media Relations is no stranger to noting EMU’s close-game tendencies, but ESPN’s Chris Fallica, known as “The Bear” on the network’s flagship pregame show, College Gameday, took to Twitter to discuss it as well.
According to Fallica, 35 of EMU’s last 40 MAC games and 48 of its last 59 games overall have either been a win or a one-possession loss.
RECOVERING FUMBLES: Eastern Michigan has been one of the best teams in the nation when it comes to recovering fumbles in 2021. The Eagles have picked up nine loose balls this season, which ranks third in the MAC and 32nd nationally.
PLAYING DISCIPLINED: EMU has been the most disciplined team in the country in 2021. The Eagles rank first in the nation in: fewest penalties (41), fewest penalties per game (3.42), fewest penalty yards (366), and fewest penalty yards per game (30.5).
RUNNING FOR THE RECORD BOOKS: Sophomore running back Samson Evans ran for his team-leading 12th touchdown in the third quarter against CMU, Nov. 26. That number ranks tied for seventh-most in a single season for Eastern Michigan. It is the most in a season for EMU since 2015, when Darius Jackson set the all-time record with 16 scores.
PUNT EM’ DOWN: The Eagles have also been elite on special teams. As a unit, EMU ranks first in the MAC and 18th nationally with a 42.22 yards per punt average. Individually, senior punter Jake Julien, the reigning MAC West Special Teams Player of the Week, has already slotted himself as the best in school history. Eastern’s all-time record holder in punt average at 44.0 yards per kick, Julien has 9,494 yards on 216 tries. In 53 career contests, he has 50 kicks of 50-or-more yards to go along with 69 placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
BAD MAN CHAD: In the kicking game, junior Chad Ryland has been unbelievable. A season of records for the Lebanon, Pa. native, Ryland kicked his way into the No. 1 overall spot on the EMU all-time scoring list in 2021. He currently has 301 points, and passed former Eagle Andrew Wellock (2003-07) for the top spot in program history against Central Michigan, Nov. 26. The program’s all-time record holder in PAT attempts (142), PAT makes (138), and longest field goal (t-1; 55 yards) – all set this season, Ryland also notched a program record when he hit five field goals, the most ever in a single game for the program, against Western Michigan, Nov. 16.
JULIEN’S GIANT LEG: Senior punter Jake Julien has been outstanding in his career, and that did not change in EMU’s regular-season finale at Central Michigan, Nov. 26. Julien punted four times for the Eagles with an average of 48.8 yards per punt while pinning the Chippewas inside their own 20 one time. He used his last regular-season game as an Eagle to boot the longest ball of his career. The Barrie, Ontario native blasted a 78-yarder with just over 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The longest kick of his career, it marked his third overall effort of 70+ yards since his arrival on campus. His previous long, 73 yards, came in a game against Western Michigan, Oct. 6, 2018. The 78-yard boomer is tied for the 10th-longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) this season.
GOOD PROTECTION: EMU’s punt protection has been outstanding this season. The Green and White did not allow a blocked punt at any point this season. They are one of 63 teams in the nation that notched that accomplishment.
SEVEN-11: EMU’s 22-21 win over Western Michigan, Nov. 16, moved the Eagles’ record to 7-4 on the season. EMU has not won seven of its first 11 games in a season since the 1989 season.
Overall, only 14 teams in the 130-year history of EMU football have finished with seven-or-more wins. Only two teams have done it in the 21st century; they have both been coached by Chris Creighton (2016, 2018). Prior to Creighton’s arrival in 2014, EMU had produced 13 seasons with seven-or-more losses since 2000.
Additionally, 2021 now officially marks the first time that the program has had three seven-plus win seasons in a six-year span since the Green and White did it three times between 1968-71.
SCORING SITUATION: Eastern Michigan’s offense is one of the best scoring units in the Mid-American Conference in 2021. Averaging 31.0 points per game, EMU has put up 372 total points on 46 touchdowns, 15 field goals, and 45 extra points. In total, 14 different Eagles have found the paydirt in 2021, including five players who have scored multiple touchdowns. Sophomore Samson Evans leads all Eagles and ranks fourth in the league with 12 touchdowns. That number is the seventh-most in a single season by any Eastern player.
DEFENSIVE OVERVIEW: On the defensive end, EMU has been impressive as well. EMU has forced 17 turnovers in 2021, and has scored points off of 14 (10 touchdowns, 4 field goals). EMU has scored 82 points off those turnovers, twice as a direct result of the play, and 11 times in its subsequent offensive possession. Of the three times that EMU did not score off a turnover in the 2021 regular season, one was because the offense was able to enter victory formation (vs. Western Michigan, Nov. 16).
THE NEAL NEATHERY EFFECT: Prior to EMU Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Neal Neathery‘s arrival in 2016, the Eagles recorded four-or-more sacks in a game just eight times in the 10 previous seasons. Under his direction, Eastern has accomplished the feat 14 times, including three times this season (4 vs. Saint Francis, Sept. 3; 4 vs. Texas State, Sept. 25; 5 at Toledo, Nov. 2).
BALANCED PRODUCTION: Eastern Michigan’s offense has been incredibly consistent from half to half this season. The Eagles have scored a total of 372 points this season, 177 of which have been registered in the first half of the contest. EMU has scored 48 percent of its total points in the first half this season, and 52 percent in the second half of contests.
MOVING THE CHAINS: EMU’s offense is one of the best in the Mid-American Conference on third down. As an offense, Eastern converts 42.4 percent (67-of-158) of its third down tries. That number ranks 45th in the nation. It should be noted that EMU has struggled on third down in its last two games. Eastern Michigan is just 4-of-26 (15%) on third down in its last two games, after converting a league-best 48 percent (63-of-132) during the first 10 weeks of the season.
MAGIC EIGHT BALL: Junior wide receiver Hassan Beydoun hauled in a team-high eight receptions against Central Michigan, Nov. 26. Beydoun now has five-or-more receptions in nine games this season for EMU.
HOW HAVE YOU BEN?: Senior quarterback Ben Bryant ranks first in the MAC and 12th nationally with a 69 percent completion clip in 2021. His 2,921 yards passing ranks second in the league and 29th in the country, while his 243.4 passing yards per contest sits at third in the MAC, and ranks 39th in the NCAA. Bryant’s current completion percentage ranks second best for any Eastern player since the turn of the century. Only Andy Schmitt (72.8%) in 2007 has recorded a season with a better completion percentage since 2000.
(SOON TO BE) MR. 3,000: Despite starting just 10 games for the Green and White in the regular season, senior quarterback Ben Bryant has the chance to accomplish a feat that only two previous EMU signal callers have done when he takes the field at the LendingTree Bowl, Dec. 18. The La Grange, Ill. native needs just 79 yards to hit the 3,000 mark this season. Only Charlie Batch (1997 – 3,280; 1995 – 3,177) and Mike Glass III (2019 – 3,169) have hit the mark.
RIGHT ON, RYLAND: Junior kicker Chad Ryland continues to prove he is one of the best assets in the conference. After starting the season just 1-for-4, the Lebanon, Pa. native has hit his stride, knocking in his last 16 attempts. Ryland is now 17-for-20 on the season. He is fifth in the MAC in terms of points responsible for, with 96, and points per game, with 8.0.
HEY HEY, JOSE: Individually, defensive end Jose Ramirez has been one of the biggest challenges for offensive linemen in the MAC this season. He ranks 10th in the MAC with 6.0 sacks, a career-best mark for the Lake Alfred, Fla. native.
BIG TIME RUSS: In the backfield, Russell Vaden IV has emerged as an elite defender. The Louisville, Ky. native leads all Eagles with three interceptions. That number is tied for second in the conference.
TARIQ THE TACKLER: Junior linebacker Tariq Speights finished as the Eagles’ regular-season tackles leader in 2021. The Valencia, Calif. native racked up 85 tackles (18 solo, 67 assisted), including 1.5 tackles for loss. His 7.0 tackles per contest ranks inside the MAC’s top-20 (No. 18). He notched a career-best three games with 12+ tackles, including hitting his personal-best mark of 13 stops against Ball State, Oct. 16.
BETTER CALL PAUL: Junior defensive back Jarrett Paul, a Rutgers transfer, made an immediate impact on the EMU defense in his first season with the Green and White. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native was tied for fourth on the team in total tackles (45), and led all EMU players in pass break ups, with five. One of the best open-field tacklers for Eastern Michigan, 60 percent of his stops came in solo fashion.
ALL-TIME VERSUS LIBERTY: The LendingTree Bowl will mark the second meeting between EMU and LU. Liberty previously pulled the 25-24 upset of EMU at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Oct. 14, 1989, while the Flames were still a member of the Football Championship Subdivision ranks (FCS). It marked the program’s first win over a NCAA FBS opponent.
Liberty’s Eric Green caught a 12-yard pass from Robbie Justino with 11 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to pull the upset. EMU had the lead prior to that point, as Tim Henneghan connected on his third field goal of the day with 14:16 to play in the contest to make it 24-19.
The two are scheduled to meet again during the 2023 and 2024 seasons.
CLOSE CONNECTIONS: EMU and Liberty share more than their postseason destination. First year EMU wide receivers coach RJ Fleming spent a pair of seasons in Lynchburg before making the trek north to Ypsilanti. Fleming worked with the wide receivers in an offensive quality control role. The 2020 season was the best in school history for the Flames, after finishing the year ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll and No. 18 in the Coaches Poll. Both national rankings were the highest ever in program history. The finish also marked the first time Liberty had concluded a season ranked in the final national polls of the year. The Flames finished the season with a 10-1 record, tying the program’s record for wins in a season.
Meanwhile, former EMU defensive graduate assistant Vontrell King-Williams is on staff with Liberty in a graduate assistant role with the flames, focusing his efforts on the defensive line. Williams’ ties with EMU runs deeper than his stop in Southeast Michigan. King-Williams was a standout defensive lineman and team captain under Eastern’s Associate Head Coach Neal Neathery when the pair were at Texas-San Antonio.
SEVEN EAGLES EARN ALL-MAC STATUS: For the sixth consecutive year, the Eastern Michigan University football team saw at least seven of its student-athletes named to All-Mid-American Conference teams, the league office announced Wednesday, Dec. 1. The seven selections are tied for eighth-most in program history, with the 1995, 2019, and 2020 teams also posting the same amount of honorees.
Junior offensive lineman Sidy Sow earned first team honors for his stellar play in the trenches. Three additional players, juniors Hassan Beydoun, and Chad Ryland, as well as senior Jake Julien earned second team nods.
Senior tight end Thomas Odukoya, along with sophomores Jose Ramirez and Brian Dooley all earned a spot on the third team, to round off this year’s set of selections.
HISTORY OF THE LENDINGTREE BOWL: Originally conceptualized by former editor of the Mobile Register, Stan Tiner, and former Mobile mayor, Mike Dow, in 1998, it took the duo less than one year to earn NCAA certification and approval for the creation of a postseason game in Mobile, Ala. The bowl game was originally known as the Mobile Alabama Bowl (1999). From 2000-10 it was named after title sponsor GMAC Financial Services and became the GMAC Bowl. From 2011 through 2015 GoDaddy became the title sponsor. In 2016, Dollar General became the title sponsor. In 2019, LendingTree became the new title sponsor. The game matches teams from Conference-USA, the Sun Belt Conference and the Mid-American Conference.
THE MAC IN THE LENDINGTREE BOWL: The Mid-American Conference is no stranger to the LendingTree Bowl. Eastern Michigan will make the conference’s 20th appearance in the game when it takes on Liberty, Dec. 18. That number tops any other conference.
The MAC has had a representative in all but three games in LendingTree Bowl history (1999, 2000 – the bowl’s initial two seasons; 2020 – the most recent installment of the game).
As a conference, the MAC has fared at about a 50 percent clip, holding a 9-10 overall record in the bowl. EMU will try to even the ledger at 10-10.
Three Mid-American Conference squads have captured multiple LendingTree Bowl trophies (Marshall – 2, Toledo – 2, Miami – 2), while three others each have one win in the Mobile-rooted contest (Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan).
DID YOU KNOW? LENDINGTREE BOWL EDITION: The 2001 game between the Marshall Thundering Herd (then associated with the MAC) and East Carolina Pirates set the record as the highest-scoring bowl game of all time, and Marshall achieved what was, at that point, the greatest scoring comeback in bowl history. In this contest, Marshall battled back from a 38–8 deficit to win 64–61 in double overtime. Thundering Herd quarterback Byron Leftwich threw for 576 yards in the game. The 2008 game had the largest margin of victory in bowl history, with Tulsa defeating Bowling Green, 63–7.
THE NEED TO KNOWS – EASTERN MICHIGAN TRADITIONS: Head Coach Chris Creighton has established a plethora of traditions at EMU since his tenure began prior to the start of the 2014 season.
THE WRENCH: One of the symbols of the program, EMU’s eye-catching 51-pound pipe wrench can be seen on the shoulders on a player at all times during EMU’s games – never touching the ground. The wrench symbolizes three distinct pillars that are emphasized within the program: 1) The blue collar nature of Eastern Michigan and the Southeast Michigan community, 2) The ability to “close the gap,” between where you are, and where you want to be – symbolized by the ability to open and close the vices of the wrench, 3) The conscious choice to embrace, and even choose, adversity. Those who tackle adversity head on are better for it. The wrench symbolizes the embrace of adversity.
In addition to its presence on the sideline, the wrench is also front and center when the team enters the field for the final time before kickoff. Each week, the team selects someone who has overcome significant adversity of their own, to carry the wrench and lead the team onto the field. From cancer survivors, to those who lost a loved one, the wrench has been carried by players, family members, and community members of all sorts since 2014.
THE WALL: Symbolizing the desire to “break through,” even before the game begins, Eastern Michigan’s signature entrance features the breaking of, and running through a cinder block wall, featuring “The Factory,” written across.
THE HAMMERS: Used the break down “The Wall,” three players each week are selected to use a sledgehammer to help lead EMU out of the tunnel. The hammers are given each week to the player on offense, defense, and special teams that recorded the hardest, legal hit in the week prior.
THE FACTORY: Paying homage to the hard-working, industrial history of Southeast Michigan, EMU has dubbed Rynearson Stadium as “The Factory,” since 2014. Features in the stadium include diamond plated signage, accents, text featuring the words “Champions Built Here,” and more.
THE GRAY TURF: EMU is one of just three FBS teams to play on a non-green surface. Boise State (blue), and Coastal Carolina (teal) are the other two teams. EMU’s gray field turf was installed after Creighton led his team through an offseason, 6 a.m. workout in nearly six inches of snow – outdoors. There, he uttered that his new-look Eagles would “play anyone, anytime, anywhere – even on a parking lot covered in broken glass.” Thus, the new turf was installed to represent a parking lot and the team’s commitment to that statement.
THE EAGLE: Eastern Michigan’s pregame festivities features a cross-field flight by a bald eagle during the playing of the national anthem. Eastern Michigan is the only school in the country that features a flight from an American Bald Eagle.
PASS ATTACK: EMU has had no shortage of creative scoring in 2021. Four different Eagles have thrown touchdown passes for the Green and White, the most in any year during the modern statistical era (1998-Pres.). Regular signal called Ben Bryant leads the way with 14 TD strikes, while running back Samson Evans has delivered three. Preston Hutchinson and Dylan Drummond have each tossed one.
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