Vince Calhoun never had a chance at any hardware while playing football for Middletown High School, but he will get a shot with his Eastern Michigan University team Saturday.
The junior safety has been a key part of the Eagles defense since he arrived on campus in 2016, and now he is headed to his second college bowl game in three seasons.
EMU (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American Conference), which lost in the Bahamas Bowl when Calhoun was a freshman, plays Georgia Southern (9-3, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference) in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl at 5:30 pm. on Saturday in Montgomery, Ala. It marks the program’s third Division I bowl game, but first on U.S. soil in 31 years. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
» LOOKING BACK: Calhoun picks Eastern Michigan
“It’s an amazing experience to be playing again in December because last year we were sitting at home at this point,” Calhoun said in a phone interview Thursday after the team’s second practice since arriving in Alabama the previous day. “It’s pretty special to be able to go to a second bowl game, but my goal is to play in three. I want to go again next year, but before I think about that, I want to get a win in this one.”
Calhoun started at safety in the Bahamas Bowl two years ago when the Eagles lost 24-20 to Old Dominion. He had an interception and four tackles in that game, but EMU fell short of the program’s second bowl win in program history.
The experience already feels different this time for Calhoun.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “Freshman year I was a young kid, and I was just happy to be there. But this time, I’m here to win and get a ring. I’m happy to be here, but losing that game didn’t feel good. I want to win this time.”
If Eastern Michigan gets the win, the defense almost certainly will have played a major role.
The Green-and-White posted one of the most successful defensive campaigns in program history this season while allowing just 22 points per game — the school’s fifth-best mark in the modern era and best since 1993 — and giving up 352.9 yards of offense, which is the second-best mark since 1998.
The Eagles’ red-zone defense is the fourth best in the NCAA, and only four teams allowed fewer passing yards as EMU held opponents to just 160 yards per game through the air. EMU intercepted 13 passes, including a team-leading three from Calhoun, and forced a total of 24 turnovers, which ranked 12th nationally.
Calhoun played his role in all of that as he continues to grow as a leader for the defense. He was a third-team All-MAC selection for a second year in a row after totaling 77 tackles, four pass breakups and one forced fumble in addition to his three interceptions.
“I feel I’ve grown a lot as a player,” said Calhoun, who was the team’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016 and Defensive Hammer Award winner last year. “Experience helps a lot. I know what to expect and can better anticipate things. The game has slowed down for me.
“I cover better. I’ve given up one pass all season despite being the highest targeted safety in the MAC. It’s definitely crazy.”
One of Calhoun’s interceptions sealed a regular-season finale victory over Kent State as the Eagles secured their ticket to the postseason.
They now head into the game against Georgia Southern on a three-game win streak and feeling confident, Calhoun said. The Eagles won five of their last six after going through a four-game losing streak in which all of those contests were decided by a touchdown or less, and two went to overtime.
Calhoun said that was a turning point in the season.
“We learned a lot about how to handle adversity,” he said. “Last year we had a six-game losing streak and we didn’t want to do that again, so we got together and had a meeting and just said, ‘We’ve got to turn this around.’ It was just players, no coaches or anything. That was an important moment for us as a team, and we were able to turn it around.”
The one loss in that last stretch of six games was against Army, but even that was one that could prove valuable in the preparation for Georgia Southern, which also runs the triple option like Army.
“They are a good team but they run the triple option, and I’m pretty good against that so I feel pretty confident,” Calhoun said. “Our high school ran the triple option when I was there, so I’m pretty familiar with it, and we played Army and they run that. I feel like it’s a good matchup for us, so hopefully we go out and play a good game and come away with a ring.”