The Eastern Michigan Eagles out of the MAC are set to face off against the FBS independent Liberty Flames in the 23rd edition of the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday in Mobile, Alabama. It's an intriguing matchup between a pair of 7-5 teams looking to close out the 2021 season on a high note.
It's been a roller-coaster campaign for Eastern Michigan (7-5, 4-4 MAC). The Eagles started the season 6-3 before dropping two of their last three contests, including a 31-10 loss to rival Central Michigan on the road in the regular-season finale. Nevertheless, it's been another successful campaign for EMU, as the program has now reached bowl eligibility for the fourth time under eighth-year head coach Chris Creighton. A somewhat remarkable feat considering Eastern Michigan had made just two bowl appearances in program history, with only one win (1987 California Bowl), prior to Creighton's arrival in 2014. Unfortunately, Creighton has yet to lead the Eagles to a bowl victory in three previous attempts. Do the upset-minded Eagles have what it takes to secure their first bowl win in 37 years?
Liberty will be making its third consecutive bowl appearance under Hugh Freeze, who is 2-0 in the postseason as head coach of the Flames. Liberty entered the 2021 season with lofty aspirations after returning most of its starters, including star quarterback Malik Willis, from last year's 10-1 squad that knocked off previously undefeated Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl. The Flames got off to a strong start at 5-1, once again establishing themselves as one of the premier Group of 5 teams in the country. But in a twist of fate, Liberty found itself struggling in the second half of the season. The Flames would go on to win just two of its remaining six games, concluding the regular season on a three-game losing streak to finish at 7-5. Can Liberty return to early-season form and keep its perfect bowl record intact under Freeze?
Saturday's game will mark just the second meeting ever between Eastern Michigan and Liberty. The Flames won back in 1989, beating the Eagles 25-24.
LendingTree Bowl: Eastern Michigan (7-5) vs. Liberty (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18 at 5:45 p.m. ET
Where: Hancock Whitney Stadium (Mobile, Ala.)
Spread: Liberty -9
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
The Eagles employ a balanced offensive attack that averages 381.6 yards and 31 points per game. That said, EMU has done most of its damage through the air behind the arm of quarterback Ben Bryant. The Cincinnati transfer started the season as the backup behind Preston Hutchinson before getting the starting nod in the team's third game. In 10 starts, Bryant's numbers have been solid. He leads the MAC with a 68.8 percent completion rate and ranks third in the conference with 2,921 passing yards, tossing 14 touchdown passes against six interceptions along the way.
Hassan Beydoun, Dylan Drummond, and Tanner Knue headline the EMU receiving corps. Beydoun, a former walk-on, earned second-team All-MAC honors after a standout regular season that included 86 catches for 932 yards and four touchdowns. Drummond hauled in 58 receptions for 653 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. And Knue, who missed eight games due to injury, served as Bryant's favorite receiver down the stretch, hauling in 28 catches for 307 yards and a score in the Eagles' final four games of the regular season. The offensive line has been suspect in pass protection, allowing 38 sacks, which is a concern against a solid Liberty pass rush that generated 33 sacks during the regular season.
The Eagles run the ball just as much as they throw it. However, the ground attack has not been nearly as effective, producing just 118 yards per contest, which ranks 112th nationally. That's not to say that there isn't talent in the backfield. James Madison transfer Jawon Hamilton spearheads the EMU running game with a team-high 631 yards and four scores on the ground, followed by Darius Boone Jr. with 400 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Running back Samson Evans does most of the heavy lifting in goal-line situations, resulting in a team-leading 12 rushing touchdowns. Evans also is dangerous with his arm, completing three of his four pass attempts this season for touchdowns.
Eastern Michigan will be matched up against a Liberty defense that allows 315.3 yards and 21.7 points per game. The Flames are particularly stingy against the pass, which matches up well against what the Eagles do best. Liberty ranks in the top five nationally in passing defense, giving up just 174.2 yards per contest through the air. The Flames have been slightly more forgiving against the run. However, they are no pushover in that department either, allowing 141.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 49th nationally. They also rank 12th in the FBS with 92 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Storey Jackson leads the way for the Liberty defense with a team-high 93 tackles, 12 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks.
When Liberty Has the Ball
Quarterback Malik Willis is the driving force behind a Liberty offense that churns out 428.6 yards and 31.8 points per game. The dynamic signal-caller has completed 61.6 percent of his pass attempts for 2,626 yards with 24 touchdowns. That said, he has been erratic at times this season, and his 12 interceptions are a real eyesore on the stat sheet. Regardless, Willis is a dangerous playmaker who can beat you with his arm and his legs, which is why he remains one of the NFL's top quarterback prospects.
Willis relies heavily on a trio of talented wide receivers in Demario Douglas (49 rec., 679 yds., 5 TDs), CJ Daniels (36, 590, 7), and Kevin Shaa (25, 422, 5). The weak link of the Liberty offense is an offensive line that has been nothing short of terrible in pass protection. The Flames surrendered 50 sacks during the regular season, a total that was surpassed by just one other FBS team. And in the last three games alone (all losses), they yielded gave up a ridiculous 21 sacks. Eastern Michigan doesn't feature a prolific pass rush (22 sacks, eighth in MAC), but as leaky as the Liberty offensive line has been of late, it's a real concern.
In addition to starring in the passing game, Willis also serves as the Flames' leading rusher for a ground attack that generates a respectable 176.9 yards per game. Only two FBS quarterbacks have produced more yards on the ground than Willis' 820 to go along with 11 rushing touchdowns. The dual-threat signal-caller is joined in the backfield by a trio of running backs that have been fairly productive That group includes — Joshua Mack (109 att., 448 yds., 3 TDs), T.J. Green (67, 389, 3), and Shedro Louis (68, 374, 4).
Liberty will be paired against an Eastern Michigan defense that allows 428.4 yards and 27.8 points per game. The Eagles can be vulnerable through the air, giving up 231.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 70th in the FBS. But they have been particularly generous to opposing run games, allowing 197.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 113th nationally. The EMU defense also has struggled mightily on third down (114th) and in the red zone (106th). The Eagles aren't completely void of talent on the defensive side of the football, but they will need their top playmakers to step up in this matchup. Most notably, leading tackler Tariq Speights and standout defensive lineman Jose Ramirez, who leads the team in tackles for a loss (10.5), sacks (6.5), and forced fumbles (3).
At first glance, this looks like an easy win for the Flames. Liberty certainly has the edge in talent, including an elite quarterback in Willis. However, the Flames' lackluster performances down the stretch are alarming. Even Freeze expressed his concern over his team's lack of focus and motivation in his bowl game presser. Liberty also has a real turnover problem, ranking 125th nationally in turnover margin at minus-11. The Flames are one of the most penalized teams in the country as well.
Eastern Michigan, on the other hand, will be highly motivated for this matchup. The Eagles are the least penalized team in the FBS and extremely disciplined. They do a pretty good job of taking care of the football as well (plus-3 in turnover margin). And they feature one of the top special teams units in the nation.
However, the EMU offense is inconsistent at best. And a solid Liberty defense matches up extremely well against the strength of the EMU offense — throwing the football. The bigger issue is an Eastern Michigan defense that doesn't really do much of anything well. And the Eagles have not faced a quarterback as dynamic as Willis all season. That will be the difference on Saturday.
Prediction: Liberty 31, Eastern Michigan 24
Podcast: Early Signing Day, Coaching News, QB Transfers, and Early Bowl Previews
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.