By RENALDO DORSETT
THE 2016 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will add another chapter to the budding rivalry between the Old Dominion Monarchs and the Eastern Michigan Eagles.
When the teams meet at the Thomas A Robinson National Stadium at 1pm on December 23, it will be their third meeting in three years.
Old Dominion has the edge in the head-to-head matchup thus far. In 2014 they scored a 17-3 victory, followed by a 38-34 win last season.
Monarchs’ head coach Bobby Wilder said that despite his teams two wins, the nature of each game dictates the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl is in for yet another thrilling finish.
“We have had two very competitive, hard fought, clean competitive football games against them. Both games have gone down to the wire. In 2014 we were playing in the rain and it was windy so it was only 10-3 in the fourth quarter and we scored a late touchdown to win 17-3 but it was really a one score game. Last year we trailed late 34-31, and we scored right around two minutes to go and we had to stop them on a two minute drill. You’re talking about two games that have gone down to the wire,” he said, “I think the people of the Bahamas are going to see an incredible game I would certainly be welcome to continuing this series. It is pretty remarkable, this is the third year we’ve played and we’re in different conferences.”
With its previous editions, the Bahamas Bowl has developed a reputation for high-powered offences and late fourth quarter lead shifting plays.
Western Kentucky edged Central Michigan 49-48 in a game decided by a Hail Mary and failed two point conversion, followed by Western Michigan’s 45-31 win over Middle Tennessee which featured six touchdowns of 40 yards or more.
“I’ve watched both of the previous games from start to finish. I remember watching the Western Kentucky - Central Michigan game with my family and we all jumped off the couch when Central cut the lead and lined up and went for two. Last year’s game was a very good game so I’m hoping for the third straight year and give the people of the Bahamas a competitive game,” Wilder said, “If the game’s we’ve played have been any indication, its going to be competitive.”
The Monarchs (9-3 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA play) will make their first-ever bowl appearance. Wilder is in his eighth season (66-30 record overall) at the school, and has been the school’s only head coach since restarting the program in 2009.
The Monarchs will come into the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl with a five-game win streak and wins in eight of the last nine games.
Eagles head coach Chris Creighton said his team his eager to finally get over the hump against the Monarchs.
‘They’re so good. They’re very well coached. They built it the right way and they keep getting better. They’re not a one hit wonder and that starts with the class of their head coach,” he said, “They beat us in our first game last year at home. We were ahead by 14 points twice and they came back and beat us. The games have been close and they have gotten the better of us so what a neat opportunity for us to play a third time at this venue.”
The Eagles (7-6 overall, 4-4 in MAC play) are in their first bowl appearance since the 1987 California Bowl.
Creighton is in his third season (10-26 record overall) at the school, and his 20th season as a college head coach (149-72 record overall).
The Eagles tied the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) mark for biggest turnarounds in 2016, improving from a one-win season in 2015 to seven victories this season.
“I think it’s a testament to who our guys are. A record never defines you. If you’re losing it doesn’t make you a loser and if you win it doesn’t make you a winner. I think it’s who you are on the inside, what you believe and how you respond. Our guys have had this winning attitude in them and fortunately it came together and we were able to get the results everybody on the outside looks at and what we wanted as well. It became a crazy momentum that we built along with that,” Creighton said, “Even as soon as a year ago folks probably didn’t think this was possible. In the months January and February, our football team was walking through snow 5:30 in the morning when no one was thinking about football. This has been a process for a couple years. The depth of commitment by our guys to be able to overcome what hasn’t been done in such a long time. It’s something I’ll never forget. For guys to be living this right now is one of the reason you do what you do.”
Eastern Michigan is led on offense by redshirt junior quarterback Brogan Roback, who passed for 2,394 yards and 16 touchdowns to go with five 300-yard passing games. The offensive line combined to allow the 12th-fewest sacks in the nation, as well as the second-fewest tackles for loss. Redshirt sophomore running back Ian Eriksen rushed for 741 yards and nine touchdown, while junior wide receiver Sergio Bailey II caught 55 passes for 799 yards and six TDs. Defensively, the Eagles forced 23 turnovers, good for 20th in the nation and second in the MAC. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Kyle Rachwal led EMU with 101 tackles, while redshirt senior defensive lineman Pat O’Connor had eight sacks.
ODU has the top rushing offense in C-USA, averaging 199.1 yards per game behind junior running back Ray Lawry, who ran for 1,112 yards (102.0 yards per game), six 100-yard rushing games and 11 touchdowns. Sophomore running back Jeremy Cox rushed for 685 yards and 13 touchdowns. Senior quarterback David Washington threw for 2,648 yards and 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Senior wide receiver Zach Pascal, who caught 63 passes for 893 yards and eight TDs, has caught a pass in 48 consecutive games, tied for the longest current streak in FBS.
The Monarchs had the second-best scoring defense in the conference, holding opponents to an average of 27.8 yards per game and led C-USA in turnover margin at +13, thanks to 12 fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions against a league-low nine turnovers on offense. The defense also recorded 34 sacks, second in the conference. Sophomore defensive end Oshane Ximines had 7.5 sacks while junior defensive end Bunmi Rotimi added seven. Senior cornerback Aaron Young led the team with three interceptions.