The first time Eastern Michigan’s football team battled Michigan to rule the roost in Washtenaw County, it was 1896.

The Wolverines’ opponents were the Normalites, not the Eagles. And Eastern Michigan still was named the Michigan State Normal School.

On Saturday, it looked like the Eagles, riding a 2-0 record, had a chance to topple the giant. But in Michigan’s 31-3 victory Saturday, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense just may have set the Eagles’ progression back to the Normalite days.

It was all run and no pass, just like in 1896. Though passing is now a legal part of the game, Eastern Michigan hardly tried it.

But it was the Michigan defense that looked disastrous from the beginning. That was almost expected.

Just as Western Michigan and Notre Dame sliced up the Wolverines (3-0) for opening-drive touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season, Eastern Michigan quarterback Alex Gillett opened the game by commandeering an easy drive into Michigan territory.

His solution was easy enough: run the ball. It was the same plan the Eagles used in weeks one and two to average 331 rushing yards per game. Michigan got a heavy dose of two backs whose names conveniently match the Eagles’ school colors: Greene and White.

Running backs Javonti Greene and Dominique White, a substitute for injured starter Dominique Sherrer, that is.

But Greene met Black and things turned in Michigan’s favor.

After the Eagles (2-1) rushed for 55 yards into enemy territory, sophomore defensive end Jibreel Black jarred the ball loose from Greene. Redshirt sophomore safety Thomas Gordon recovered the fumble and ended the defense’s early-game woes.

But then, for the third time this season, the Michigan offense failed to record a single point in the first quarter.

Eastern Michigan’s jet sweep series continued to give the Wolverine defense fits.

On the ensuing Eagles’ drive, Gillett and the backs — who combined for 119 rushing yards in the first quarter alone — marched inside the Michigan one-yard line facing a fourth down.

Redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs beat his man to the edge and made the tackle with his back to the goal line.

“Every defensive player wants to be in a fourth-and-one position,” Kovacs said. “We were right on the goal line. What more could you ask for?”

Added Eastern Michigan coach Ron English: “I think you’ve got to score from the one-inch line. If you can’t score from the half-yard line then you’re going to have a hard time winning.”

Opening the second quarter with another fourth down, this time from the three-yard line, English had learned his lesson. He kicked the field goal, giving the Eagles their first and only lead of the day.

The saving grace for Michigan actually ended up being the Eastern Michigan trailing away from their jet sweep package.

On a first down in Wolverines territory early in the second quarter, English checked in Tyler Benz, his backup quarterback to an unfamiliar formation.

“They gave us a little funky formation,” Gordon said. “We knew something tricky was up.”

Gillett took the snap and threw left to Benz, who had stepped back from the line. He took a look downfield and angled a pass toward the near pylon.

Gordon, though, had “sniffed it out.” He lunged for the overthrow with his right hand, holding the receiver off with his left.

“It just came down in my glove,” Gordon said.

The explanation was simple enough, but the catch was spectacular.

Then junior quarterback Denard Robinson and the offense woke up, tacking on two touchdowns before the halftime break.

Another pair of touchdowns in the third quarter all but sealed the game up.

Gillett finished the first half with 29 passing yards. He ended the game with 29 passing yards. Zero second-half passing yards, throwing just once while facing a double-digit deficit — that’s rare, even for a run-heavy team.

Hoke pointed to the pressure provided by his defensive line as a key factor, saying he “felt them a little more this week.” The front four were led by junior defensive end Craig Roh, who finally made his mark on the stat sheet — and on the field — with five tackles and a sack.

It seemed Mattison and the defense had figured the Eagles out — after their wide-receiver pass and flea-flicker (two of just five passes on the day) stumped them in the first quarter.

“They came out and threw the kitchen sink at us in the first half — some formations we’ve never seen — and we stayed calm and knew eventually they’d have to play some football,” Kovacs said.

But English had a different explanation.

“To me, the biggest thing that happened was, we weren’t doing that,” English said, thrusting his fist forward to simulate his running backs running straight downfield.

“We were doing this,” he continued, moving his fist in a zig-zag pattern. “And I thought Michigan improved obviously, but I know we can run it. And you have to be willing to take those tough yards as a back. That was disappointing to me.”

The Eagles finished with 207 rushing yards, compared to the Wolverines’ 376.

Michigan’s defense switched from making the special plays occasionally in the first half to making the correct plays down the stretch. Eastern Michigan’s three points were the least allowed by Michigan since a 38-0 shutout of Notre Dame on Sept. 15, 2007.

But from the looks of the opening drive, Mattison has plenty to work on with this group.

“We can’t be getting behind at the beginning of the game,” Kovacs said. “If we want to be a great defense, we’ve got to stop them in their tracks at the beginning of the game.

“We came out a little flat, got off to a rough start again. There’s definitely some things that we need to do. We need to come out with that intensity every game.”

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