Western Michigan and Central Michigan got things done on the defensive side of the ball to become bowl-eligible last week.
The Broncos scored three defensive touchdowns in their 48-20 rout of Kent State to close out their home schedule while CMU had five interceptions to power its way to a 42-30 home victory over Eastern Michigan.
Toledo is still in control of its own destiny as the frontrunner in the MAC West for the right to play in the conference championship game at Ford Field Dec. 2 with two games left in the regular season. But WMU and CMU still have outside chances to play in that game.
The defending MAC champion Broncos (6-4, 4-2) play at Northern Illinois (7-3, 5-1) Wednesday night before a showdown at Toledo (8-2, 5-1) the day after Thanksgiving. They ended a seven-game losing streak in the series with Northern Illinois last season and have beaten the Rockets the last two years, including 35-30 two years ago at Toledo to prevent the Rockets from making the trip to Detroit.
CMU (6-4, 4-2) plays at Kent State (2-8, 1-5) Tuesday night before hosting Northern Illinois the day after Thanksgiving.
“With us going into the year with the (coaching) transition and some of the injuries we’ve had, the goal is always to get to these last two games and make them mean something,” said WMU first-year head coach Tim Lester. “We do have some control over what we do these last two games and we’re in the hunt for being MAC West champs. We’re going to play two really good teams and we have to be at our best.”
Broncos safety Justin Tranquill suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against Michigan State, then lost quarterback Jon Wassink last month to a shoulder injury against Eastern Michigan. In addition, in the past few weeks WMU has lost a trio of running backs – Jamauri Bogan, LeVante Bellamy and Davon Tucker – to either foot or leg injuries.
Still, the Broncos have senior running back Jarvion Franklin, who had his sixth straight 100-yard game, rushing for 191 yards in the win over Kent State to top the 1,000-yard mark (1,061) for the third time in his career.
Senior linebacker Robert Spillane (35 yards) and senior cornerback Darius Phillips (43 yards) had TD interception returns, and A.J. Thomas (U-D Jesuit) had a 23-yard TD fumble return for the Broncos, who have forced 22 turnovers and have a turnover margin of plus-seven.
Phillips tied a FBS record with his fifth career interception return for a TD. He also forced a fumble.
Phillips now has an FBS-record 12 TDs on runbacks, including five kickoff returns, five interception returns, a punt return and a fumble return.
Lester is thankful Phillips is recovering from his wrist injury.
“We were able to take off the hard cast and put on a soft cast to give him a little flexibility in his wrist, and sure enough he gets a pick-six,” said Lester of Phillips. “No one had been catching the ball on him, but he hadn’t been able to get turnovers, so it was fun for him to battle through his injury and keep playing and get back to making a huge impact.
“It’s like he’s back to being the 100 percent Darius Phillips and I’m happy for him.”
No doubt, the WMU-Northern Illinois game will be a battle in the trenches with the Broncos showcasing the No. 13 rushing attack (249.2 yards) against the nation’s No. 8 defense against the run (109.8).
The Chippewas were dominating EMU 35-17 in the fourth quarter before the Eagles pulled within 35-30, making things interesting prior to Amari Coleman’s 33-yard TD interception return in the final minute.
CMU is tied for the nation’s lead in turnovers forced with 27 (11 fumbles, 16 interceptions), joining Washington State and Wyoming.
“We weathered the storm since the game didn’t start the way we planned,” said CMU coach John Bonamego, noting EMU defensive end Maxx Crosby scored on a 14-yard fumble return on the first play from scrimmage. “We were able to do a good job of taking the ball away and got the short field as a result of a couple turnovers and were able to convert those into points.
“When you talk about interceptions, I think you always have to start with your defensive front. I thought our defensive line did a good job of pressuring the quarterback (Brogan Roback). There were a number of examples where he was under duress, on the move, and a quarterback as good as Roback is, you can’t allow him to get comfortable or he’ll pick you apart.”
While the Chippewas are bowl-eligible, Bonamego stresses that they’re not guaranteed a bid. They can improve their position against Kent State.
“Bowl-eligible does not necessarily mean bowl guarantee,” Bonamego said. “We still have to continue to play at a high level and continue to improve.”
Eastern Michigan’s bowl hopes ended with the loss to the Chippewas.
EMU (3-7, 1-5) earned its first winning season since 1995 last season, finishing 7-6 with a bowl loss to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl.
The Eagles will play at Miami of Ohio (4-6, 3-3) on Wednesday.
Central Michigan at Kent State
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Dix Stadium, Kent, Ohio
TV / radio: ESPNU / 1270 AM
Records: Central Michigan 6-4 (4-2 MAC), Kent State 2-8 (1-5)
Eastern Michigan at Miami
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Yager Stadium, Oxford, Ohio
TV / radio: CBSSN / 89.1 FM
Records: Eastern Michigan 3-7 (1-5 MAC), Miami 4-6 (3-3)
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.
TV / radio: ESPN2 / 1130 AM
Records: Western Michigan 6-4 (4-2 MAC), Northern Illinois 7-3 (5-1)