Western Michigan vs. Ohio preview: All on the line

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Tony Paul breaks down Friday’s Mid-American Conference championship game between Western Michigan and Ohio at Ford Field (7 p.m., ESPN2):

BOBCATS TO WATCH

Quinton Maxwell, QB, Fr.

Ohio has had its quarterback issues, especially lately with senior Greg Windham (leg) missing the last several games. Maxwell is not an offensive machine, but he still led Ohio past Akron to secure the title-game bid.

Tarell Basham, DL, Sr.

Getting pressure on Broncos QB Zach Terrell is a priority, and it’s not easy. But, Basham does have 10 sacks.

Dorian Brown, RB, Jr.

With a redshirt freshman likely guiding the offense at quarterback, Ohio figures to go to the ground game more than the passing game. The Bobcats have some depth, led by Brown (794 yards, four TDs).

BRONCOS TO WATCH

Zach Terrell, QB, Sr.

Terrell has come so far since his red-shirt freshman season, when he had to ponder transferring after new coach P.J. Fleck wasn't sure Terrell was the right guy to lead the culture. A four-year starter, this year has been easily his best yet, with 30 TDs to just one INT.

Corey Davis, WR, Sr.

P.J. Fleck's first big get on the recruiting trail, all he's done is become the most prolific receiver in FBS history. A likely early round pick in the NFL draft, he's made a boatload of ESPN-highlight catches in 2016.

Darius Phillips, CB, Jr.

With WMU missing two defenders, Justin Ferguson (ankle) for the game and Caleb Bailey (targeting vs. Toledo) for the first half, others must step up. Phillips, a converted receiver from Detroit Robichaud, has four interceptions, and is a dynamic kick and punt returner, too.

INTANGIBLES

Top of the charts

Western Michigan is tied for first in the nation with Washington in turnover margin at plus-18. If Ohio is to have any legitimate shot, it has to protect the ball.

Home sweet home

It’s likely to be a hostile crowd, at least from Ohio’s perspective. The three biggest crowds in the 12-year history of the game at Ford Field came via Central Michigan (three times).

Something’s gotta give

A key matchup is Western Michigan’s two-headed rush attack against Ohio’s run defense, which is fifth in the nation (105.1 yards). Jamauri Bogan returned from an ankle injury with a 198-yard game against Toledo, and Jarvion Franklin has rushed for 1,266 yards.

Hot seat

Western Michigan is heavily favored, but don’t discount the pressure the Broncos are under to cap a perfect season and crash the New Year’s Six.

Opposites attract

The coaching matchup is intriguing — the young guard (Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, 36) vs. the old guard (Ohio’s Frank Solich, 72). Fleck never has coached in a game this big, while Solich has coached in the Rose and Fiesta bowls.

FACTS AND FIGURES

* Ohio is 0-2 against teams from Michigan, with losses to Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, both by a score of 27-20.

* Western Michigan beat its eight Mid-American Conference opponents by an average of nearly 27 points, while Ohio won its six conference games by an average of fewer than 10.

* This is Western Michigan’s MAC title game at Ford Field, home of the game since 2004. Before that, the game was played on campus sites, and Western Michigan appeared twice, losing at Marshall in 1999 and 2000. WMU has played twice at Ford Field, against Illinois in the regular season in 2008 and against Purdue in the bowl in 2011, and split those games.

* Ohio never has won a MAC championship game, losing its three previous appearances, all at Ford Field — to Central Michigan in 2006 and 2009, and in 2011 to Northern Illinois.

* Only one conference championship game has a bigger point spread — Alabama a 24-point favorite over Florida in the Southeastern Conference. Western Michigan’s line is 18 at last check.

MEET THE COACHES

Frank Solich, Ohio

In his 12th year at Ohio, he's had a good run, with one losing season, his first, in 2005. He came to Ohio after being fired after a 9-3 season at Nebraska in 2003. He coached six years at Nebraska, making six bowls, including the Fiesta (1999, win) and Rose (2001, loss).

P.J. Fleck, WMU

In his fourth year at Western Michigan, he has brought the Broncos from 1-11 his first season to 12-0 this season. No wonder he's such a hot commodity on the coaching market, with rumored possible interest from Purdue, and possibly Oregon, Indiana and Houston, or Notre Dame if that job opens.

PREDICTIONS

Tony Paul, David Goricki, Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo make their picks for the game here.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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