The Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan programs have gone in opposite directions since the Broncos’ 27-24 victory over EMU on Oct. 6 in Kalamazoo.
The Eagles (6-5, 4-3) have won four of their last five – the lone loss was to No. 23 Army – and will try to win five straight conference games for the first time since 1989 when they conclude the regular season Friday at Kent State (2-9, 1-6).
A win against Kent State would clinch a second winning season in three years for the Eagles. That would be an impressive accomplishment for fifth-year head coach Chris Creighton, considering EMU had 20 straight non-winning seasons before 2016.
Meanwhile, WMU’s program has gone from MAC championship caliber just two years ago to mediocre, losing three straight games while allowing an average of 50.6 points, including a 42-41 overtime loss at Ball State (4-7, 3-4) last Tuesday.
The Broncos (6-5, 4-3) have gone from a team in charge of their own destiny a few weeks ago when they had a six-game winning streak and were 4-0 in the MAC, to needing a win over MAC West champion Northern Illinois (7-4, 6-1) Tuesday night in Kalamazoo to assure a bowl bid, a loss more than likely having them sit at home for the second straight year at 6-6.
Meanwhile, the EMU defense hasn’t allowed a point since that 37-22 loss to Army back on Oct. 27. Central Michigan scored on a fumble return in EMU’s 17-7 win over the Chippewas Nov. 3 and Akron scored on a special-teams play in the Eagles’ 27-7 rout of the Zips Nov. 10. EMU was idle last week.
“It’s a huge week for our program,” Creighton said Monday. “We have a mature football team. We have great senior leadership and our guys know what’s at stake. We’re playing well. We’re good, obviously not Northern Illinois (MAC West champs), not there, but we are competitive and our guys care about it, love football and play hard.”
Creighton and the Eagles earned the respect of Kent State coach Sean Lewis, who compared EMU 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior defensive end Maxx Crosby to the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt. Crosby has 17.5 TFL, including 7.5 sacks this season while forcing four fumbles.
Things have gotten so bad at WMU that second-year head coach Tim Lester fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust after the loss to Ball State.
Lester went for a 2-point conversion, and failed, after a 1-yard TD run by freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby pulled the Broncos within 42-41 after Ball State scored first in OT.
If the Broncos would have won, Tuesday night’s game against Northern Illinois would have been for the West Division title and the right to play in the MAC championship game Nov. 30 at Ford Field.
“We knew they were 6-of-6 in the red zone on the day and that’s basically what overtime is,” said Lester. “Unfortunately, we’re ranked last in the league in red zone defense, giving up touchdowns 90 percent of the time. Our offense was moving the ball well and I definitely wanted our offense on the field to make the determining play percentage-wise. We didn’t execute well, but I wouldn’t change the decision to be aggressive with our offense out there.”
The Broncos wasted an impressive performance by junior LeVante Bellamy, who rushed for 213 yards (35 carries) and has 1,120 yards this season.
Bellamy and the Broncos will be tested by a Northern Illinois defense that ranks 12th nationally in stopping the run (108.2 yards, 2.69 yards per carry).
“It starts with their front seven, their two defensive ends are active and obviously Sutton Smith (nine sacks) is the guy who I’m really impressed with,” Lester said of the NIU defense. “Their linebackers are downhill and physical, aggressive on the edges so they find ways to get seven, eight or nine guys into the box.
“It reminds me of Michigan’s defense, which is hard to run against, and you have to make plays on the edges to have a chance. They just play so hard, and it is fun to watch and you respect them for the way they play this game. We’re going to have to find ways to run it, but that is our strength.”
Central Michigan (1-10, 0-7) will try to avoid becoming the first team in program history to go winless in MAC play when the Chippewas finish the season Friday at Toledo (6-5, 4-3). CMU joined the MAC in 1975.
One of CMU’s lone bright spots is defensive lineman Mike Danna (Warren De La Salle), who has nine sacks.
CMU coach John Bonamego said he plans to start freshman quarterback Austin Hergott against Toledo. Hergott made his first start in a 24-13 loss to Bowling Green Nov. 10 when he completed 11-of-21 for 94 yards and a TD with an interception.