Don’t ever underestimate the value of a kicker, especially in a season where a few points are the difference between winning and losing.
And, that’s the case of Western Michigan this season, knowing the loss of Butch Hampton is hurting more than the Broncos believed possible coming into the season.
Hampton set a Mid-American Conference record for points in a season (128) as a true freshman last year, converting on 19-of-24 field goals and 71-of-73 PATs.
Hampton, who kicked five field goals in the MAC championship game, a 29-23 win over Ohio at Ford Field to give the Broncos their first MAC championship since 1988, left the program to play soccer for his father back home in Oklahoma at an NAIA school.
The Broncos (4-3, 2-1) had their four-game winning streak come to an end, losing at home to Akron, 14-13, Sunday in a game that was pushed back a day due to Waldo Stadium’s field being underwater Saturday.
The loss ended Western’s 12-game winning streak against MAC opponents dating back to the 2015 MAC finale, a 35-30 win at No. 24 Toledo.
“It definitely was a weekend like none other as far as the weather and the stadium and I give a ton of credit to our facilities people for getting that thing up and running,” Lester said. “Coach Bowden and Akron stayed in Lansing, they found a hotel since it was Homecoming weekend so there were no hotels (in Kalamazoo area). My guys stayed in their apartments and dorms which is unlike anything I’ve been around.
“As far as our performance we obviously fell short. We moved the ball well. We just weren’t really good in the red zone (1-for-4). We were trying to fight back and couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone and missed some field goals. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot and against a good team you can’t do that.”
The Broncos had a great drive on the game’s opening series, advancing to Akron’s 10 before a Jon Wassink pass was intercepted and returned 70 yards to set up Akron’s first TD.
Akron increased the lead to 14-0 before Josh Grant’s 49-yard field goal cut the deficit to 14-3 at halftime. But, Grant also missed field goals from 25 and 49 yards during the second quarter which had him missing 4 of his last 6 field goal attempts dating back to Western’s record-breaking 71-68, seven-OT win the previous week at Buffalo.
And, Grant’s inconsistency could have played a role in Lester going for a first down on fourth and 3 at the Akron 11 in the third quarter. The Broncos came up empty when Jamauri Bogan was stopped a yard short.
“Our defense played great, gave up 215 yards and got us the ball back a couple of times and they were the guys that kept us in it,” said Lester, noting Western outgained Akron, 426-215. “Offensively, we were able to move the ball inside the 20s, but struggled in the red zone.”
No doubt, Grant wasn’t the lone problem for the Broncos. Darius Phillips, one of the top threats in the kick return game, called a fair catch on a punt at the Western 29 with 45 seconds left while passing up on a return which could have given them a short field.
Then, on the final drive Wassink looked like a first-year starting quarterback, taking the ball and running for a 7-yard gain with no timeouts left, and then taking a sack to end the game.
Sure, Wassink completed a couple of passes to get the Broncos to the Akron 39, but took a sack to end the game on third down, a play after senior tight end Donnie Ernsberger dropped a pass at the 32 which would have made things interesting.
Now, the Broncos have to toss aside the loss and look forward to the Michigan MAC championship games — at Eastern Michigan Saturday, then at home against Central Michigan (Nov. 1) — if they have any thoughts of repeating as MAC champs.
Western senior running back Jarvion Franklin could become the school’s career rushing leader against the Eagles. He has rushed for 4,177, including 538 this season, and needs just 43 to break Robert Sanford’s record of 4,219 when he led the Broncos to consecutive MAC title game appearances, including 1999 when Lester was quarterback.
“He just brings that toughness and our O line too,” said Lester of Franklin who rushed for 130 yards on 31 carries against Akron after rushing for a school-record 281 last year in a 41-0 rout of the Zips. “They were able to let us control the ball, control the clock too. He’s just a guy you can lean on. In this league you have to be able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball and it’s going to put you in every game. We were in this game, but we didn’t make the plays to win it.”
The Eagles have played five of six games decided by one score, a reason Western needs Grant to step up in the weeks ahead.
Tough loss for Eastern
Eastern Michigan’s goal coming into the season was making a bowl game for the second straight year, then winning in postseason play for the first time in 30 years.
Well, the Eagles have some work to do if they have any hopes of making a bowl game.
The Eagles (2-4, 0-2) have the MAC’s longest losing streak, dropping its fourth straight close game Saturday at Army, 28-27.
Senior quarterback Brogan Roback completed 19-of-27 for 229 yards and a career-high 4 TDs, including an 8-yard scoring toss to Sergio Bailey with 49 seconds left.
Eestern coach Chris Creighton decided to go for the 2-point conversion and win, but Ian Eriksen was upended inches short of the end zone.
“Offensively, we were very productive with the few possessions we had, scored the first two times we had the ball and ended up scoring touchdowns on four of the seven drives. It came down to the last drive there and we decided to go for two to try and get the win and fell a couple of inches short,” Creighton said.
Army piled up 413 yards on the ground on 61 attempts. Now, Creighton has to try and find a way to stop Franklin and the Broncos’ running attack which has averaged 287 yards the last four games.
“You have to defend the ground game and they have guys with the ball in their hand that are really scary,” Creighton said.
Central’s slide continues
Central Michigan (3-4, 1-2) didn’t look good in a 30-10 Homecoming Game loss to Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium Saturday, falling to 1-3 in its last four games.
“Obviously it was a disappointing loss,” third-year Cetnral coach John Bonamego said. “Really, when I go back and look at this game I have one regret, that we didn’t run the ball more in the first half.”
Toledo outgained the Chippewas by a 399-244 margin with the Rockets having a pair of 100-yard rushers in Terry Swanson (23 carries, 145 yards) and Shakif Seymour (15 carries, 119 yards).
Toledo first-team All-MAC quarterback Logan Woodside was limited to 89 yards passing, playing for the first time without standout receiver Cody Thompson who suffered a season-ending injury last week against the Eagles.
Central picked up just 62 rushing yards on 21 attempts.
“When it’s wet and the elements make it difficult to catch and throw, being able to move the ball effectively and consistently on the ground and really chew up clock becomes a throwback, brings a big importance and when you look at the stat line that really tells the story.”
Central will play at Ball State (2-4, 0-2) Saturday.
Western Michigan at Eastern Michigan
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Rynearson Stadium, Ypsilanti
TV / radio: No TV / 89.1 FM, 1130 AM
Records: Eastern 2-4 (0-2 MAC), Western 4-3 (2-1)
Central Michigan at Ball State
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Scheumann Stadium, Muncie, Ind.
TV / radio: No TV / 1270 AM
Records: Central Michigan 3-4 (1-2 MAC), Ball State 2-4 (0-2)