Mid-American Conference teams earned a win over a Big Ten opponent for the second straight week with Northern Illinois’ 21-17 victory at Nebraska on Saturday, a week after Eastern Michigan defeated Rutgers.
Meanwhile, Tim Lester earned his first career victory as Western Michigan's head coach, watching the Broncos come back from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Idaho, 37-28, at Waldo Stadium and avoid an 0-3 start.
And, playing a Power Five Conference opponent without three of its top four receivers proved too much for Central Michigan in its 41-17 loss at Syracuse.
Eastern Michigan was idle and will now try to earn its first 3-0 record since 1989 when the Eagles host Ohio Saturday afternoon at Rynearson Stadium. They defeated the MAC runner-up Bobcats in Ohio last year, 27-20, en route to their first winning season since 1995.
Defense sparks Broncos' comeback
Things didn’t look good for Western Michigan in its home opener, trailing Idaho, 28-19, in the fourth quarter with the Vandals driving to put the game away.
Then, Western Michigan's defense stepped up with cornerback Obbie Jackson (West Bloomfield) intercepting a Matt Linehan pass in the end zone to start the comeback.
The Broncos took advantage of Jackson’s interception, driving 80 yards with redshirt sophomore quarterback Jon Wassink scoring on a 22-yard run to pull within 28-26.
Then, Western Michigan's defense forced a three-and-out, and instead of punting to Darius Phillips, Idaho punter Cade Coffey shanked it out of bounds at the Vandals’ 33. The Broncos promptly cashed in on the short field as Wassink hit Giovanni Ricci for a 21-yard gain, leading to Wassink's second touchdown run to take a 34-28 lead.
The Broncos had their third takeaway when linebacker Asantay Brown forced a fumble on Idaho’s next drive.
“We didn’t play well the first three quarters, but I really felt in the fourth quarter we buckled down and had our best quarter of the year by far, offense, defense and special teams included so I was happy with the way they continued to fight and find a way to win late,” Lester said. “Our defense in the fourth quarter, I think their total was minus-19 yards and two turnovers and two sacks and offensively we scored 18 points.
“Our special teams have been solid all year. They were trying to kick the ball away from Darius (Phillips) and ended up with a 20-yard punt and a 25-yard punt.”
Wassink completed 21 of 31 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 38 yards and two scores against an Idaho team that was 9-4 with an Idaho Potato Bowl win over Colorado State last year, giving him confidence heading into Saturday night’s home game against a FCS Wagner (1-2) team that lost to Columbia, 17-14, on a last-second field goal.
“Our quarterback (Wassink) is growing up slowly but surely,” Lester said. “I thought he did a good job. We let him throw it more this game and that was by design, just to try to get him more comfortable in there, and obviously they were loading the box. They were bound and determined not to let us run the ball and I was proud of the running backs running hard, and it gave Jon more opportunities to get more one-high coverages which made his job a little more easier and he threw strikes.”
It was a huge win for the Broncos, who returned the bulk of their starters from last season's team that won the MAC championship and entered the Cotton Bowl with an unbeaten record. Of course, Western Michigan lost its strong aerial attack of quarterback Zach Terrell and All-American receiver Corey Davis, who is now playing in the NFL for the Titans.
Rough day for Chippewas
Former Michigan quarterback Shane Morris was coming off a career-high 467-yard, five-touchdown performance in a win over Power Five Conference opponent Kansas, but realized just how tough it was to head into Syracuse without three of his top four receivers.
Tight end Tyler Conklin — who had two touchdown receptions in the upset win at Oklahoma State last year — had foot surgery in training camp, and receivers Corey Willis (hand) and Brandon Childress (knee) suffered injuries last week.
Still, Morris was able to get Central Michigan out to a 17-10 lead on touchdown passes of 56 yards to Cameron Cole and 17 yards to Jonathan Ward before Syracuse came back to take a 24-17 halftime lead and blanked the Chippewas in the second half.
Morris finished 22 of 45 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He ranks 15th nationally in passing yards (970) to go along with eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
Central Michigan couldn’t stop the run, allowing 300 yards on the ground (44 carries) while gaining just 105 yards itself (34 attempts).
“I felt like we competed well in the early stages of the game and really had some good things going on," Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said. "Then there were a couple of plays toward the end of the first half where the ball deflected in and out of the receiver’s hands and ended up being intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and later at the end of the half we threw another interception, so we gave them 14 points off of turnovers.
“In the second half, Syracuse had us going three-and-out, kept giving the ball back to their offense and we gave up some big plays and then things got out of hand.”
So, what is the status of Central Michigan's receivers?
“We’re still evaluating Conklin, who injured his foot in the first practice in training camp, and he’s had surgery on it and we’re just kind of waiting and see what happens with that,” Bonamego said. “Brandon Childress unfortunately is done for the year since he’ll have season-ending surgery in the very near future. Corey Willis is week-to-week.”
No doubt, it would be big for Morris to have a 1,000-yard receiver in Willis back for just one of two Saturday games this year at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
Next up is Miami (Ohio), who fell to 1-2 on the year after failing to close out its game with Cincinnati Saturday and allowing the Bearcats to score 15 points in the final three minutes, including a 14-yard interception return for a score with 1:07 left.
Eagles eager to keep soaring
Brogan Roback had his coming-out party last year when the Eagles defeated Ohio to push their record 5-2 and give them a chance for a winning season.
In that win, Roback completed 29 of 39 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Now, the Eagles will have a shot at a rare 3-0 start when they host the Bobcats, who are coming off a 42-30 win against Kansas.
Eastern Michigan had an early-season bye last weekend and should be healthy and ready to go.
Roback has enjoyed a strong start to the 2017 season, throwing for 260 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ latest game, a 16-13 win at Rutgers on Sept. 9 when he spread the ball around and completed passes to nine different receivers, including five for 107 yards to Sergio Bailey and seven for 62 yards and a score to Antoine Porter.
Roback will be looking for an encore performance from Bailey and Porter, who both had big games last year against Ohio with Bailey hauling in eight receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown and Porter making seven catches for 74 yards and a score.
And, while Eastern Michigan's offense is clicking, fourth-year coach Chris Creighton is equally impressed with his defense.
“Our defense has been fantastic, both on the ground and in the air, and have faced two different offenses. They’re going to see a different offense against Ohio,” Creighton said. “This will be by far the most balanced attack that we have seen and best passing attack, so we will be challenged for sure.
“Our defense is off to a really good start. Our staff has done a great job and our guys in Year 2 feel comfortable in the scheme. They know the scheme, have a good feel for each other and have a healthy confidence right now.”
Creighton pointed out that Ohio was missing its star running back A.J. Ouellette the last time the teams played. Ouellette rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries in the win over Kansas.