Kalamazoo — Tim Lester was honest when speaking about the rivalry between Western Michigan and Central Michigan — two programs separated by 140 miles that compete for the Victory Cannon trophy.
“If you ask the alumni, it’s the only must-win of the year,” Lester said five days before Saturday's game.
The third-year coach of the Broncos made sure to capitalize on his opportunity.
In a Mid-American Conference showdown, Western Michigan secured a 31-15 victory over Central Michigan at Waldo Stadium.
“You’ve got a lot of happy guys in that locker room,” Lester said. “There’s a lot of things we did well.”
The win was a combined effort from the Broncos (3-2, 1-0), but it was fueled by senior quarterback Jon Wassink. All he needed was for the defense to get him started.
Central junior quarterback David Moore, making his third career start, was intercepted by sophomore cornerback Patrick Lupro. On the ensuing drive, Western's first on offense, Wassink showed his ability to quickly move the ball down the field.
Wassink completed back-to-back passes to freshman wide receiver Skyy Moore for 54 total yards. On the next play, senior running back LeVante Bellamy danced in from 11 yards out for a 7-0 lead with 11:33 left in the opening quarter.
Western Michigan never looked back, extending its dominance of the Chippewas through all four quarters.
“Lot of energy,” said senior safety Justin Tranquil, who had an interception in the third quarter. “Lot of great game planning. That was one thing that played into our strength. We have a lot of guys that can get out there and run.”
In his final CMU-WMU rivalry, Wassink was 18-of-29 passing for 244 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also had six carries for 65 yards and one score.
His offensive counterpart, Bellamy, had 25 carries for 105 yards and one touchdown.
“He does a really good job of reading coverage,” Lester said of Wassink. “If they try to change things, it really keeps our receivers alert. Jon doesn’t pick favorites.
"He’s going to watch what they do and hit you.”
WMU's Giovanni Ricci met with reporters after Saturday's win over CMU. The Detroit News
McElwain made his first tough call with 8:23 left in the first quarter, and it didn’t pay off for the Chippewas (2-3, 1-1).
On fourth-and-3 from the Western 9-yard line, McElwain elected to go for it rather than allow kicker Ryan Tice to attempt a field goal. Even though Tice is 15-of-18 on field goals in his career, the ball was directly snapped to backup sophomore running back Kobe Lewis. Safety A.J. Thomas jumped in front of Lewis, throwing him down at the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
“We had a good week of practice, but they didn’t do anything we didn’t see,” McElwain said. “Our execution wasn’t the way it needed to be.”
Central had 15 penalties for 95 yards, of which seven were on the offensive line for offsides.
The Broncos tacked on a 25-yard field goal from junior Thiago Kapps on the next offensive possession for a 10-0 lead in the first. The lead was extended to 17-0 with 4:19 left in the second quarter, as Wassink connected with senior tight end Giovanni Ricci for a 43-yard score.
“It was just supposed to be a 5-yard pitch-and-catch, but I was able to do something with it,” Ricci said. “I finally broke a tackle, so it was awesome.
"It was the right play at the right time.”
Wassink’s touchdown pass came just one drive after throwing an interception at the Central 4-yard line to junior safety Gage Kreski. The defense forced the Chippewas to punt, and the ball went back into Wassink’s hands.
McElwain, like in the first quarter, told his offense to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Western 15 with 48 seconds remaining in the first half. Instead of taking the points from Tice’s leg, the ball was given to Lewis. Lewis lost 2 yards on the play, which resulted in a turnover on downs again.
The halftime score was 17-0, even though it could’ve easily been 17-6.
Wassink extended the lead to 24-0 with 2:34 left in the third quarter on a quarterback sneak from 1-yard out. The Chippewas were held scoreless until early in the fourth.
That’s when Lewis scored on a 1-yard carry, but the two-point conversion pass from Moore failed. Tice kicked a 29-yard field goal with 7:14 left to apply pressure, 24-9, but Lester’s group slammed the door.
Freshman third-string running back Sean Tyler scored Western's final touchdown of the game on an 11-yard carry for a 31-9 lead.
Moore threw an interception to Tranquill in the third quarter, and it wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter that he tossed a touchdown. He hit junior receiver JaCorey Sullivan for a 34-yard score with 3:29 left, but it wasn’t enough to push for a comeback.
The junior quarterback transfer from Garden City Community College was 33-of-48 passing for 330 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Central was led at the running back position by senior Jonathan Ward, who had 19 carries for 107 yards in his first game back from an injury sustained in Week 2 against Wisconsin.
Next Saturday, Western plays at Toledo, and Central hosts Eastern Michigan, was will be coming off a bye week.
Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.