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MAC notes: Hanging onto the ball key to WMU success

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips was searching for the right terminology for staying humble during the postgame press conference Saturday night after the Broncos defeated Georgia Southern 49-31, avenging a 26-point loss to the Sun Belt Conference team a year ago.

That was about the only problem Phillips had after returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and scoring on a 70-yard interception return early in the third quarter to open a 42-17 lead.

“Coach Fleck goes by a saying that says a humble team is … uhm,” struggled Phillips during the press conference in the players meeting room where WMU senior quarterback Zach Terrell helped him out, pointing to a sign so he could continue.

Terrell gave his teammate a little help, a reason the Broncos are 4-0, including a pair of wins over Big Ten teams — Northwestern (22-21) and Illinois (34-10) — heading into their rivalry game at Central Michigan Saturday night. The last time they entered the CMU game with an unbeaten record, WMU lost in Mount Pleasant, 35-28 in 1994.

The Broncos have a realistic chance to run the table heading into their regular season finale at home against Toledo if they get past the Chippewas, especially with six-time defending MAC West champion Northern Illinois at 0-4.

Phillips and Terrell are big reasons the Broncos have a strong shot at winning their third straight game in the series with the Chippewas due to the ability to make big plays on special teams while also owning the turnover battle.

The Broncos are fourth nationally in turnover margin, forcing seven turnovers while not turning the ball over this season.

“This year Coach Fleck came out and said the defense needs to score touchdowns or put the offense in the position to score touchdowns and I think we really bought into that,” said Phillips, who returned a kick for a touchdown against Michigan State last year, then picked off a pair of passes against Ohio State a couple of games later.

Terrell agreed.

“You can see the sign over there where it says, No. 1 the ball is the program and it’s an emphasis on defense and offense constantly and it will continue to be No. 1 on the board,” Terrell said.

“We practice it every day. The ball is the program and we have a drill every day called ‘Program’. It’s completely devoted to the ball and protecting the ball and the ball is premium. Coach Fleck put a statistic out in the offseason showing the top teams in the country and what their turnover margin was and what teams were in the bottom in the country and what their turnover margin was and it was pretty revealing and I think a lot of us, like Darius said, have bought in.”

Terrell has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (68-of-98) for 893 yards and nine TDs. He has a big-play receiver in Corey Davis (24, 395, four TDs), but Michael Henry (18, 235, two) showed he is also capable of making plays, grabbing two TD passes against Georgia Southern.

It would be safe to say the Broncos have one of the most balanced offenses in the country, averaging 43.7 points and 468 total yards, including 245 on the ground. Sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan ranks fourth nationally with 527 yards and five TDs.

“I’m really proud of the progress our team is making,” said Fleck, who had turned around a 1-11 team his first year in 2013 with 8-5 seasons the past two years. “They just continue to change their best and focus on one game at a time and have a one-game-season mentality. I’m proud of how they finish games, start games.

“We have to find a way to change our best. We have one of the top 10 rivalries in college football in my opinion coming up this week and we’ll be playing a really, really good football team. The turnover margin, ball security (is the key), creating turnovers and protecting the football. I think both teams have to be able to do that and I think there will be something on special teams that people do that it (deciding factor) will come down to.”

WMU defeated CMU 41-39 last year in Kalamazoo, taking a 34-16 second-half lead before the Chippewas made things interesting with a TD to pull within two. Terrell and the Broncos held the ball for the final 8:24 seconds on a 15-play, 70-yard drive.

Chips’ rally falls short

CMU was also trying to enter the rivalry game with an unbeaten record. The Chippewas were trying to make history by winning their second game against a Power Five Conference team in the same season, but lost at Virginia 49-35.

Sure, CMU (3-1) made things interesting, scoring 28 unanswered points to pull even at 28 early in the fourth quarter before Virginia answered with three straight TDs to put the game away.

Now, it’s on to the rivalry game and CMU second-year coach John Bonamego knows the tough challenge that awaits the Chippewas.

“I think our keys going into this game is, first we recognize what a talented team Western is,” said Bonamego, who competed in the CMU-WMU series as a player for the Chippewas nearly 30 years ago. “They were picked to win the conference for good reason. They are 4-0, beat two Big Ten teams. They have excellent skill across the board on offense and on the defensive side of the ball they haven’t missed a beat.

“I think their quarterback (Terrell) is playing at a very high level. Obviously, they have Davis as their big target, but they have a stable of excellent receivers and they are loaded at running back. It will be important for us to take care of the football and we can’t afford to make any mistakes in this game from the standpoint of penalties or allowing big plays. We just have to try and do our best and contain that offense which is just so explosive and keep everything in front of us.”

Senior quarterback Cooper Rush continued to put up big numbers for the Chippewas, completing 25-of-45 for 402 yards and a pair of TDs, both to Corey Willis for 85 and 14 yards.

The Chips will try to get their running game going against the Broncos after being limited to 93 yards on 34 carries in the loss at Virginia. CMU’s defense allowed 569 total yards, 421 through the air.

Rush is eighth nationally in passing yards (1,359), completing 62.6 percent of his throws for nine TDs with four interceptions.

“I think he’ll (Rush) be an incredibly high draft pick,” Fleck said. “I got a chance to watch him over the course of the last three years and he makes everybody around him better. He’s an incredible leader. He gets everybody in the right spot. You can see that everybody leans on him and that’s the definition of a true leader. Everybody looks to him to be his best all the time and he has been. He’s incredibly consistent. He's very accurate, has a big arm. He’s very, very smart and makes elite decisions and you can tell his leadership runs true through the entire football team.”

CMU standout senior receiver Jesse Kroll left the Virginia game with a knee injury. His status will be known later in the week, Bonamego said.

Eagles off to great start

Chris Creighton has guided Eastern Michigan to a strong start, including a dramatic, 27-24 comeback win over Wyoming last Friday at Rynearson Stadium.

EMU’s 3-1 record is its best start since 1995, its last winning season. Wyoming is a solid team, defeating Northern Illinois in the season opener.

Creighton is most proud of the Eagles defense, especially its ability to stop the run. EMU has allowed just 107.3 yards rushing per game, after giving up 4,076 yards on the ground last year for an average of 316.8.

“Wyoming likes to run power and stretch and really kind of hang everything on those two things and I’m really proud of our defense, held them to 79 yards rushing for 2.1 yards per carry and that was just a phenomenal effort.,” Creighton said.

Now comes the real test for the Eagles, who have lost 14 straight MAC games. They will open the conference season Saturday afternoon at Bowling Green against the defending MAC champion Falcons.

However, this is not the same Bowling Green team as a year ago. The Falcons (1-3) no longer have MAC Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Matt Johnson, nor do they have a strong defense.

EMU is primed for a legitimate shot at ending its streak while going up against a Bowling Green defense which is ranked dead last in the FBS, allowing 55 points a game, including 77 in losses against Ohio State and Memphis and 41 in a home loss to a Middle Tennessee State team that WMU defeated in the Bahamas Bowl last December.

That’s right, the Falcons have already given up 31 TDs this season, including six TD passes in the opening half to Riley Ferguson and Memphis, when they trailed 56-3 at the intermission. Memphis defeated Bowling Green and Johnson last season, 44-41.

Creighton and EMU have the same opportunity that WMU had two years ago when the Broncos made the move from 1-11 to 8-5, upsetting the Falcons at Bowling Green, 26-14, to get them headed in the right direction.

The big question is who Creighton will start at quarterback, Todd Porter, who has started the first four games, or Brogan Roback, who made his debut in the fourth quarter and directed the winning drive, capped by Ian Eriksen’s 15-yard TD run with 1:35 left.

Porter threw a pair of interceptions that were returned for TDs, one for 66 yards to open the scoring, then a 27-yarder to give Wyoming a 24-20 cushion early in the fourth.

Roback, who was suspended to start the season, completed 3-of-6 for 47 yards.

Either Porter or Roback will have the opportunity for big games — the Falcons have allowed an average of 327 yards passing.