Around the MAC: Spillane leads Western Michigan defense

David Goricki
The Detroit News
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Mid-American Conference fans know all about Western Michigan’s explosive offense, averaging 41.6 points during the Broncos’ 3-0 conference start.

Western Michigan (4-3) will play Thursday night at Eastern Michigan (1-7, 0-4), hoping to slow down Eastern Michigan running back Darius Jackson, who ranks 19th nationally with 799 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Western Michigan’s defense has been a little under the radar, despite limiting a 5-1 Ohio team to 100 yards rushing Oct. 17 in a 49-14 win, then had its best performance of the season Saturday in a 35-13 H win over Miami (Ohio), limiting Miami to 276 total yards, just 58 yards on the ground.

And, no player was better than sophomore linebacker Robert Spillane, who had nine tackles, including 31/2 for loss. He was named MAC Defensive Player of the Week.

“All three positions, the D-line, the linebackers and secondary is what’s helping us get to the level to where we want to be,” the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Spillane said. “When our secondary locks down and our D-line gets pressure on the quarterback good things will happen all year long.”

Spillane’s family has been known for its football. His grandfather, John Lattner — known as Papa John — won the Heisman Trophy award in 1953 while playing halfback for Frank Leahy at Notre Dame, leading the Irish to a 9-0-1 record and No. 2 national ranking. He celebrated his 83rd birthday Saturday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, watching two of his grandsons go at it head-to-head in Spillane and Miami tight end Ryan Smith.

“My grandfather would not miss a football game, he really wouldn’t,” Spillane said. “His life is lived through his grandchildren and he gets to as many games as possible. My mom (Lattner’s daughter) is one of eight and my father is one of 11, both grew up in Oak Park (Illinois), so I have about 50 cousins within a five-mile radius of me. We just grew up in a loving family and we were always big into football. I grew up going to family parties, playing with my cousins and it was tackle football at five years old.”

Spillane starred as a running back/linebacker at Oak Park Fenwick, the same high school “Papa John” attended. His first visit was to Western Michigan, then he never took another despite getting offers from Purdue, Cincinnati and Syracuse.

“This was my first recruiting trip and as soon as I got here I met the coaches, the people and all the players and I knew this was the place for me immediately,” Spillane said. “The energy that Coach (P.J.) Fleck, the vision that he put in my mind that I could see, and all the people in the program that has the energy and that positive attitude, that really sticks to you and as soon as I got around them for a few days I was bought in. And, that vision is to be a national program, not just be a good program for a few years and then drop off. I accepted the offer right then, my junior year.”

Spillane was to Western Michigan’s defense as a true freshman what Jarvion Franklin was to the offense, both a major part of a recruiting class that ranked No. 60 by, the highest-ranked class in MAC history.

Franklin rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns, earning MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors while helping the Broncos make the turnaround from 1-11 to 8-5 and a bowl appearance.

Spillane started as a true freshman in eight games, appearing in all 13. He was in on 67 tackles, making four sacks.

Spillane has played all three linebacker spots, but enjoys the MIKE linebacker the most. He has 45 tackles this season, matching the 51/2 tackles for loss he had a year ago.

“I like the MIKE linebacker,” he said. “I love being able to communicate, being the leader on the defense, talking to everybody, but along with that comes the responsibility that anything that goes wrong is on you, but I love that pressure.”

Rush continues to impress

Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush continued his outstanding junior season Saturday, connecting on 30-of-38 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-21 win at Ball State. He did have one interception

In the last three games, a 41-39 loss to Western Michigan and wins over Buffalo (51-14) and Ball State, Rush has completed 76 percent of his passes (76-of-100) for 950 yards and 10 touchdowns with three interceptions. He ranks 11th nationally in passing yards (2,400), throwing for 18 TDs.

Central Michigan first-year head coach John Bonamego was thrilled with the win, ending a five-game losing streak in the series, but still felt his team could have played better.

“We didn’t play our best game, hurt ourselves a lot with penalties and that stalled some drives and we turned the ball over two times in the game at critical points,” said Bonamego. “We’re glad to get out of Muncie (Indiana) with a win. It was a great win for our program, but we didn’t make things easy on ourselves.”

Central Michigan (4-4, 3-1), which had 10 penalties, twice as many as Ball State — will play at Akron (3-4, 1-2) on Saturday.

Eastern defense struggles

Eastern Michigan lost its sixth straight Saturday, 49-21 at Northern Illinois (5-3, 3-1). It was the fifth straight game it has allowed 44 or more points.

Northern Illinois piled up 591 total yards, including a season-high 324 on the ground, leading 35-0 at halftime and converting 15-of-23 third downs for the game.

Now, Eastern Michigan will be going up against a Western Michigan offense that ran for a school-record 401 yards during the second half of a 49-14 win over Ohio. Western Michigan junior quarterback Zach Terrell had thrown for 677 yards and 10 touchdowns without an interception in MAC play.

Rockets rally

No. 20 Toledo (7-0, 4-0) remained unbeaten, coming back from a 28-10 halftime deficit to defeat Massachusetts, 51-35.

The Rockets scored 38 straight points to take a 48-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter with Alabama transfer, senior quarterback Phillip Ely (355 yards passing, five touchdowns) leading the way. It was the fifth largest comeback in school history. Toledo has outscored its opponents by a 73-0 margin in third quarter.

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