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Bahamas Bowl Preview and Prediction: Old Dominion vs. Eastern Michigan

Ray Lawry

Ray Lawry

A tripleheader of bowl action on Friday starts with the only postseason game outside of the United States, as Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion meet in the third edition of the Bahamas Bowl. The matchup of the Monarchs and Eagles is one of the best feel-good stories of the bowl season. Old Dominion is making its first postseason trip in program history, while Eastern Michigan is playing in its first bowl since 1987.

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Eastern Michigan’s turnaround under third-year coach Chris Creighton has been one of the best storylines of the 2016 season. This job is one of the toughest in the nation, but Creighton guided the Eagles to their first winning mark since 1995 and engineered a six-game improvement after a 1-11 record in 2015. For some perspective on how difficult this job is, Eastern Michigan has just three non-losing records since 1990. The Eagles knocked off two division champs this year – Ohio (MAC East) and Wyoming (Mountain West Mountain Division). The addition of coordinator Neal Neathery has been one of the biggest reasons for improvement in Ypsilanti. The Eagles limited opponents to just 5.8 yards per play – a clear improvement after surrendering 7.02 in 2015.

Behind coach (and rising star) Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion has been on a fast rise since restarting its program in 2009. The Monarchs disbanded the football program after the 1940 season but returned to the gridiron in 2009. As an FCS Independent from 2009-10, Old Dominion went 17-5 and later went 21-5 with two playoff trips from 2011-12. The Monarchs transitioned as a FCS Independent in 2013 (8-4) and recorded a .500 season (6-6) in their first year at the FBS level. ODU went 5-7 last season but rebounded to 9-3 and lost only one conference game this fall. The Monarchs recorded a strong nine-win resume, with the only losses coming against Appalachian State, NC State and WKU. ODU has one of the top offenses in Conference USA (36 ppg), while the defense limits opponents to 5.4 yards per play.

Related: Ranking All 40 Bowl Games for 2016

Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan have played two previous matchups. The Monarchs have won both games, including a 38-34 shootout in Ypsilanti last season. ODU won 17-3 in Norfolk, Va. in 2014.

Old Dominion vs. Eastern Michigan (Bahamas Bowl)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 23 at 1 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Old Dominion -4

Three Things to Watch

1. Eastern Michigan’s Passing Attack

The strength of Eastern Michigan’s offense is the passing game. The Eagles rank second in the MAC by averaging 295.8 yards per game through the air, with quarterback Brogan Roback throwing for 2,394 yards and 16 scores in nine games. Playing mistake-free ball is always key for a quarterback, but Roback’s split stats show how critical turnovers have been for this offense. In four losses that Roback played in, the junior tossed five picks and completed 55.6 percent of his throws. However, in five wins, Roback threw for 11 touchdowns and completed 62.7 of his passes. Roback isn’t a dynamic runner, but he’s not a statue in the pocket either. The junior rushed for 195 yards and two scores on 195 carries this season.

The 6-foot-3 quarterback leads the MAC with an average of 36.2 attempts per game and also has a wealth of receiving options at his disposal. Six Eastern Michigan players have caught at least 20 passes, with Sergio Bailey (55 catches) leading the way. The Eagles aren’t one-dimensional on offense but earning a victory in the Bahamas will be on the shoulder of Roback.

Old Dominion will counter Roback and the EMU passing game with a secondary that ranks fifth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Brandon Addison is the headliner in the secondary for Wilder, earning second-team All-Conference USA honors after recording 43 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2016. Helping the secondary is a relentless pass rush, as Old Dominion recorded 34 sacks in 12 games this fall. Oshane Ximines (7.5) and Bunmi Rotimi (seven) anchor the rush in the trenches.

The Eagles have a deep group of receivers and a quarterback capable of carrying the offense to a win. Can Old Dominion’s secondary and pass rush keep Roback in check?

Related: Predictions for All 40 Bowl Games in 2016

2. Old Dominion’s Ground Game

The Monarchs’ balanced and explosive attack is going to be a handful for Eastern Michigan’s defense. Old Dominion ranks fourth in C-USA in yards per play (6.4) and points per game (36). The Monarchs are also fourth in the league in plays of 40 yards or more, generating 19 through 12 contests.

Wilder’s offense has evolved a bit over the last three years, as Old Dominion attempted 455 passes with Taylor Heinicke under center in 2014. The Monarchs attempted 354 this season, but the dip in passing isn’t a concern. Instead, Old Dominion has one of the better tandems at running back in the Group of 5 ranks. Ray Lawry rushed for 1,122 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and reached 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year. Jeremy Cox recorded 685 yards and 13 touchdowns on 119 attempts and also contributed 11 receptions. Quarterback David Washington is another threat on the ground for Wilder, as the senior posted 205 yards and one touchdown on 65 carries this season.

Eastern Michigan’s rush defense has showed marked improvement this fall after surrendering a hefty 316.6 yards per game on the ground in 2015. The Eagles cut that total to 164.3 per contest this season and limited opponents to 4.3 yards per carry. Lineman Pat O’Connor (12.5 TFL) missed 2015 due to injury, but his return has helped this front seven become tougher against the run and better at generating pressure against the quarterback.

While the Eagles are clearly better up front, can they contain Cox and Lawry? The Monarchs rushed for at least 200 yards in seven contests this year, including 312 in the regular season finale against FIU. Whichever team wins the battle in the trenches in this area is likely to come out on top.

3. Old Dominion QB David Washington

David Washington’s career at Old Dominion has taken its share of turns. The North Carolina native started his career at quarterback in 2013 and later moved to receiver in 2014. During the 2014 campaign, Washington caught 47 passes for 599 yards and four touchdowns. He began the 2015 season at receiver but later moved back to quarterback midway through the year. Washington sparked the Old Dominion offense last season once he stepped in at quarterback but had his year cut short by a knee injury. The senior has avoided the injury bug and showed no ill-effects from the knee injury this fall, as he passed for 2,648 yards and 28 scores through 12 contests. In addition to his efficient play (only four interceptions), Washington is also connecting on his share of big plays (18 completions of 30 yards or more).

Washington has been an unheralded star in the Group of 5 ranks this season, and there’s a good chance the senior ends his 2016 campaign on a high note. Eastern Michigan ranks seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and 80th nationally. Coverage has been an issue at times, as the Eagles have surrendered eight plays of 50 or more yards and four out of the last six opponents threw for at least 250 yards. Old Dominion’s receiving corps features four players with at least 20 catches, including Zach Pascal (63) and Jonathan Duhart (45). Can Washington connect with Pascal and Duhart for big plays? Or will the Eastern Michigan secondary rise to the challenge and contain Washington through the air while forcing a couple of mistakes?

Final Analysis

History isn’t the best indicator of what will happen in a bowl game, but the first two editions of the Bahamas Bowl featured high-scoring affairs. In 2014, WKU edged Central Michigan in a 49-48 thriller, and Western Michigan defeated MTSU 45-31 last season. Another high-scoring affair could be in order on Friday, as Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan both average over 30 points a game. The Monarchs should be able to test the EMU front seven, but Roback and his receiving corps will provide its share of headaches for the ODU defense. If Washington continues his standout season and the Monarchs establish the run, Eastern Michigan will have trouble keeping pace. Another reason to like Old Dominion in this game is the turnover battle. The Monarchs are plus-13 this season and have forced 22 takeaways. As we mentioned in the intro, both teams should have plenty of motivation and excitement surrounding this trip. However, one team’s dream season falls short. Old Dominion caps a standout year with a victory, earning their first double-digit win total since joining the FBS level.

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Prediction: Old Dominion 38, Eastern Michigan 30