Eastern Michigan gets a win to savor

The pass felt good when it left his hands, but Alex Gillett never saw Ben Thayer catch it.

No need for that. Not when he saw the mob of players hugging Thayer in the end zone. Gillett ran toward the euphoric celebration, and the group hugged with joy, relief and a feeling some never felt in their college careers.

Eastern Michigan had finally won a game.

The Eagles ended their losing streak at 18 games -- the second longest in the nation -- with an exhilarating 41-38 overtime win over Ball State last Saturday. Though the last time they won was a 56-52 victory over Central Michigan to close out the 2008 season, the team was prepared for this moment.

Coach Ron English got the obligatory Gatorade bath for picking up his first win as a head coach. English made the team practice the fight song during fall practice so they would know what to do when they won a game. So after the touchdown celebration ended, the team walked over to the contingent of Eastern Michigan fans in the stands and they all sang together.

“There were a lot of emotions coming out of everybody,” said Gillett, who accounted for 414 total yards in the win. “Everyone had a big smile on their face. To see how happy everyone was, it was great feeling.”

Once they got into the locker room, more whoops and hollers. English told his team to remember how it feels to win, and to enjoy it. Then he stood back and watched his players celebrate, something he had never gotten the pleasure to see since he became head coach after the 2008 season following stints as a coordinator in Louisville and Michigan.

English said he felt a weight lifted, but was happier for the support system around him.

“I do have a strong belief system, but for our president who really loves football and our athletic director and our board of regents and our students and our players, the families of the coaches -- it’s hard when you’re not having success,” English said. “My family and my kids don’t know anything but success and then they have to go through this. It’s been difficult, of course, it’s going to take us some time to get this thing turned around but I feel relieved.”

Eastern Michigan did not make it easy. The Eagles trailed 28-7 late in the second quarter thanks to a series of mistakes and struggles on offense. But they did get a touchdown before the half to make it a more respectable 28-14.

Players kept their composure. Gillett said there was a belief they could come back, and no panic on the sideline. He certainly keyed the comeback: Gillett set school quarterback records for most rushes (35) and net rushing yards (189) while scoring two rushing touchdowns and also completing 10 of 18 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns.

Ball State sent the game into overtime with 34 seconds left, but the Cardinals got a field goal on their first possession. Gillett did one better, with his 12-yard TD pass to Thayer.

“Our guys never quit the whole game, we didn’t get down on ourselves,” Gillett said. “The fight in everybody was awesome.”

Eastern Michigan had some close calls this season. In the opener against Army, the Eagles rallied to take a 27-24 lead with 2:59 left in the game. But Army won it with 38 seconds left on a 7-yard touchdown run. They had chances late in the fourth quarter against Miami (Ohio) but came up short 28-21.

There have also been blowout losses to Central Michigan, Ohio State and Vanderbilt. With each loss, it got harder and harder for the players.

“It’s been tough, you put in all that work, all that time, to go out on a Saturday and not get a win for a long time, you can fall into the trap of just saying, ‘Oh here we go again,’” Gillett said. “Our guys did a great job of staying with it and working hard and it paid off for us. Our coaches, they kept preparing us like we were going to win every game. We all want to win here. That’s what we need to keep going.”

No question the road to success at Eastern Michigan is a long one. The Eagles have a tough nonconference game at Virginia on Saturday before returning to MAC play.

But at least for one week, the team has a renewed pep in its step, with heads held higher and something to savor.