Upstart Central Michigan has Western Michigan’s attention for 'huge game'

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Central Michigan quarterback David Moore.

It’s rivalry week with Western Michigan facing Central Michigan at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo Saturday at noon, and make no mistake, the Chippewas have the attention of Broncos coach Tim Lester.

The Broncos dominated CMU in last year’s game, 35-10, but the Chippewas are a far different team than a year ago when they struggled to a 1-11 record, costing John Bonamego his job as head coach.

Lester knows the importance of this rivalry, playing in it as quarterback 20 years ago when the Broncos earned a 38-16 win over CMU at Waldo, going on to play in the MAC championship game in a 34-30 loss to Chad Pennington and Marshall.

It will be the 90th meeting of the Battle of the Cannon and Jim McElwain will be introduced to the rivalry in his first year as head coach at CMU. He has quickly made the Chippewas (2-2, 1-0) competitive after they went winless in the MAC last season, guiding them to a 45-24 conference win over Akron Sept. 14, then giving Miami (Fla.) a scare Saturday, entering as a 30-point underdog before leaving with a 17-12 loss, limiting the Canes to 51 yards rushing while getting in on four sacks and nine tackles for loss.

More: Saturday's state football: WMU, CMU fall; EMU wins on punt block return

“It’s a huge game, the biggest game of the year, and if you ask the alumni it’s the only must-win of the year,” Lester said Monday. “It is a different year because they’re brand new. They have new coaches and a new offense and a new defense, so there’s not a lot of carryover from last year.

 “I think Coach McElwain does a great job offensively of putting people in good positions. I know they lost a D-lineman (Mike Danna) to Michigan, but they found a couple of more guys that are rushing the passer and they pushed Miami around. Not only is it a rivalry game, but we’re playing against a team that is playing well right now, and they beat us last time we were here, so there’s a lot of things to be excited about this Saturday.”

Lester lost to CMU in his first year as WMU’s head coach in Kalamazoo in 2017 – when the Chippewas defeated both the Broncos and Eastern Michigan – and knows the importance of winning this time around.

While the Chippewas played a solid game at Miami, the Broncos were in position to win at Syracuse early in the fourth quarter Saturday before falling, 52-33.

Central Michigan wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton prepares to stiff-arm Miami defensive back Gurvan Hall Jr.

The Broncos scored consecutive TDs in the third quarter to pull within 38-33, then early in the fourth had a third-and-1 at the WMU 41, but quarterback Jon Wassink was stuffed on a run. Lester gambled on fourth-and-1 and again running back Davon Tucker was stopped for no gain and they turned the ball over on downs.

Syracuse went on to score to take a 45-33 lead. The Broncos advanced to the Syracuse 28 on their next drive, only to turn the ball over on downs again.

Wassink completed 13-of-23 for 184 yards while Levante Bellamy rushed for 104 yards as WMU outgained Syracuse by a 295-248 margin in the first half, but three fumbles cost the Broncos, one by Bellamy inside the Syracuse 3. Wassink finished throwing for 356 yards and two TDs, eight passes going to tight end Giovanni Ricci for 105 yards and a TD.

It also didn’t help that cornerback/receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, who had a 43-yard reception, suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter, and that Bellamy was forced to the sidelines with an injury in the third after rushing for 165 yards (15 carries) and two TDs.

More: Receiver Antonio Brown says he's enrolled for online classes at Central Michigan

Lester expects Bellamy to be in the lineup against the Chippewas but thinks Eskridge will likely be on the sidelines.

Wassink ranks eighth nationally in passing yards (1,222), completing 63.3 percent of his passes for nine TDs with three interceptions. He was out with an injured shoulder when the Broncos lost to CMU 35-28 in 2017 but ran for three TDs in last year’s rout of the Chippewas.

Bellamy has now rushed for 357 yards (30 carries, five TDs) the last two games and ranks eighth nationally with 454, averaging 7.2 yards.

Lester has a lot of respect for McElwain, actually saying he took some things from McElwain’s offense while he was an assistant at Syracuse.

“When I was at Syracuse and he was Colorado State, that was the offense that I chose to study during the offseason,” said Lester of McElwain. “I didn’t know I’d be facing him five years later (as a head coach), but I really likes what he does on offense. I like what he does with the quarterback, I’ve studied it and incorporated some into what we were doing at Syracuse at the time, so I definitely have a ton of respect for him.”

CMU has to be considered ahead of schedule in its rebuild. McElwain, who earned Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2014 while at Colorado State and SEC Coach of the Year honors at Florida in 2015, is looking forward to his entrance in the rivalry.

“I’ve said a lot of times what makes college football so great are the rivalries and this being a trophy game, a game that means so much to everybody involved with the program on both sides, this is the reason you kind of do this,” McElwain said.

McElwain is concerned with WMU’s speed, along with Wassink.

“Watching these guys on film, both sides of the ball, they’ve done a great job of recruiting, especially speed,” McElwain said. “Both of those guys (Bellamy, Ricci), the explosive plays that they create are eye-popping, and yet they are created because of the guys up front. They do a great job on both sides of the line.

“I’m really impressed with the quarterback (Wassink). He makes great decisions and gives them opportunities to be successful, and when you have speed like that it really puts you in a tough spot (defensively).”

McElwain feels his Chippewas grew up in Miami.

“It was a chance for our team to kind of find out a bit about themselves and I felt we made some strides in some areas, but disappointed obviously not being able to finish and find a way to win,” McElwain said. “I think we had some guys grow up, and as a team we kind of learned a little bit to how you play hard and don’t just give in. There were some real good, solid performances.

“As we’ve said from the get go, each day we just have to get a little bit better and I’ve seen some huge strides in this last one, and yet there’s some areas where we’re a long way from being complete.”

Junior quarterback David Moore completed 23-of-50 for 217 yards against Miami with Kalil Pimpleton again being his primary receiver, grabbing 11 for 73 yards.

Senior defensive end Sean Adesanya was named MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week by getting two sacks while forcing a fumble.

Central Michigan at Western Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo

TV/radio: CBSSN/1270, 1130

Records: Central Michigan 2-2 (1-0 MAC), Western Michigan 2-2 (0-0)

Line: Western Michigan by 17