Tim Lester has to be thrilled with the realization that Western Michigan controls its own destiny heading into the final third of the season with all of the Broncos’ goals in front of them.
Western earned its sixth straight victory Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium with a 35-10 rout of bitter rival Central Michigan to come away with the Cannon Trophy and MAC Michigan Trophy.
The Broncos (6-2) are 4-0 in the MAC West and have home games against defending MAC champion Toledo (3-4, 1-2) Thursday, then Ohio (4-3, 2-1) Nov. 1, before a road game at Ball State (3-5, 2-2) Nov. 13 and a division showdown in Kalamazoo Nov. 20 against Northern Illinois (4-3, 4-0).
Lester, Western’s second-year head coach, tossed aside the nation’s No. 8 passing attack for the running game with inclement weather — rain, lightning, 30 mph winds — playing a factor Saturday afternoon in Mount Pleasant.
The Broncos showed why they own the best running game in the MAC, piling up 305 yards on the ground against the Chippewas with Levante Bellamy leading the way with 145 yards and a touchdown.
“I was proud the way the kids played with us going through sun, rain, snow, lightning, a delay and I felt they handled it well,” Lester said. “We were able to get the ground game going. The winds were about 25 miles-per-hour which made the throwing game tough. Our defense got turnovers, which was something we preached all week and something we thought we could get and we played a good, solid game.
“Our guys were fired up all week because we have been talking about that game for a year and I was proud of the way they bounced back. It was exactly what we wanted it to be.”
Western junior linebacker Alex Grace said the Broncos were bitter about last year’s game against Central, a 35-28 loss in Kalamazoo after they failed to protect a 28-14 third-quarter lead.
Grace finished with 11 tackles and an interception, one of three forced turnovers that the Broncos turned into 14 points. He was rewarded by being named MAC West Defensive Player of the Week.
Western’s success starts with their offensive line which has helped the Broncos average a MAC-high 219.6 yards, led by the nation’s seventh leading rusher in Bellamy (821 yards, 5 TDs). Junior quarterback Jon Wassink has been sacked just four times.
“We had to change some things, the first two drives we wanted to see how we handled the wind and it wasn’t going well and the defense was playing solid so we got into two tight ends and just ran it," Lester said. "I thought the offensive line played great, running backs, tight ends."
Toledo (42) and the Broncos (41) have the most wins in the MAC during the last five years, but the Rockets are struggling of late, losing two straight and three of their last four games, including a 31-17 loss to Buffalo on Saturday where they had just eight first downs and allowed 463 total yards.
Toledo dominated Western 37-10 in last year’s regular season finale to clinch the West Division title while preventing the Broncos from gaining a bowl appearance.
However, Lester won’t have to worry about trying to slow down quarterback Logan Woodside, who has since graduated. Still, Lester is concerned.
“They’re a talented football team, they’re the defending MAC champions," Lester said. "They got us pretty good last year. They can throw the ball, and between the two quarterbacks, I think they are both very capable. They have tons of talent around them and a great offensive scheme, so it’s going to be a huge challenge for us and we have to worry about us and make sure we’re executing well.
"We know that they are scoring a ton of points so we’re going to have to score some points and limit a high-powered offense.”
Eastern on a roll
After losing four straight games by a combined total of 16 points, Eastern Michigan has won two straight games, starting with a 28-26 upset of defending MAC champion Toledo, followed by a dominating 42-20 win at Ball State Saturday.
With quarterback Mike Glass out with a leg injury, senior quarterback Tyler Wiegers was 22-of-28 for 257 yards and three TDs to come away with MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“He’s really, really smart with the ball and he’s got a great arm, is very accurate,” said EMU coach Chris Creighton of Wiegers (Detroit Country Day). “He’s really bright, does not get rattled and does a pretty good job of taking what people give him.”
The Eagles are .500 (4-4, 2-3 MAC) and can put themselves in position to earn a second bowl bid in the last three years. They host Army (5-2) on Saturday, followed by home games against Central (1-7, 0-4) and Akron (3-3, 1-2) before a road game at Kent State (1-7, 0-4).
Army is 2-0 against MAC competition this season — 42-13 win over Buffalo and a 31-30 double-overtime victory over Miami (Ohio) Saturday.
Creighton is familiar with Army, going for the two-point conversion in the final minute of last year's 28-27 loss.
Army piled up 281 yards on the ground against Buffalo with its triple-option offense and had 347 rushing yards against Miami.
“They’re really, really good and their offense gets so much of the attention as it should, but they are playing great defense,” Creighton said. “We had eight possessions last year against them, 50-something snaps and we’re averaging 13 possessions so everything is affected by the way that they play the game (ball possession) and they play it really, really, really well, so it’s a tough game.”
Central skid hits 4
Central has yet to own a win over a FBS team this season and its losing streak reached four following its one-sided loss to the Broncos.
And, head coach John Bonamego knows the Chippewas have to stop turning the ball over if it has any chance of winning.
Central has 10 turnovers during its losing streak and has forced only two turnovers during that span.
Junior quarterback Tommy Lazzaro has completed less than 50 percent of his passes during the last four games (48-of-103, 501 yards) and has thrown just three TD passes with eight interceptions.
"We have to stop beating ourselves with penalties," Bonamego said. "Turnovers are another thing that plagued our team. We've turned it over far too many times. That's not a good formula for winning when you have self-inflicted errors that come in the way of penalties and turnovers, you're not going to win very many football games and consequently we haven't."
The Chippewas (1-7, 0-4) have never had a season where it didn't beat an FBS opponent, but time is starting to run out with just four games remaining, starting Saturday at Akron.