Western Michigan fell short against Toledo on Saturday, 31-24, in what could prove to be a difference-making game in the fight for the MAC West Division title.
The last time the Broncos (3-3, 1-1) defeated Toledo was in 2016, when P.J. Fleck guided them to an unbeaten regular season.
Toledo dominated the Broncos in Tim Lester’s first two years as the Broncos’ head coach, 37-10 in 2017 and 51-24 last season, and things looked much the same early Saturday. The Rockets had scoring drives of 80 and 50 yards and built a 14-0 cushion.
The Rockets (4-1, 1-0) increased the lead to 24-7 at halftime, piling up 341 first-half yards, including 182 on the ground, averaging 6.7 yards a carry.
WMU got back in the game in the second half and even had a chance to force overtime or win in regulation in the final minutes.
Jaylen Hall (Macomb Dakota) hauled in a 43-yard TD pass from Jon Wassink to pull the Broncos within 24-14 and LeVante Bellamy broke loose for a 39-yard TD run to cut the deficit to 31-24 with 7:55 left.
WMU’s defense was much better during the second half, giving up just one touchdown and 134 total yards.
Wassink directed a 68-yard drive, leading the Broncos from the WMU 20 to the Toledo 12 on a 18-yard pass to tight end Giovanni Ricci with 2 1/2 minutes left. But an incompletion, followed by a sack and another incompletion, resulted in a fourth-and-22 from the Toledo 24, and after finding no receiver open, Wassink scrambled and was stopped short of the first down at the 4.
“I thought their defensive scheme was good,” Lester said of Toledo. “We were able to regroup at halftime, but we weren’t able to overcome the deficit we had in the first half. It’s something that we’ve talked about – we can’t get behind and then wake up and start playing when you’re on the road.”
As for the improved second-half performance by the Broncos, Lester said, “I was very proud; we gave up just seven points to a really good offense. I thought we tackled better, I thought we ran to the ball better.”
Next up for WMU is a homecoming game with Miami at Waldo Stadium. Miami (2-3, 1-0) has arguably played the toughest schedule in the MAC, losing to No. 3 Ohio State, No. 17 Iowa and No. 25 Cincinnati, and defeating defending MAC East champion Buffalo, 34-20.
Coach Chuck Martin – who led Grand Valley State to Division II national titles in 2005 and ’06 – has built Miami into a solid program, winning eight of its last 10 MAC games going back to the end of the 2017 season.
“You know they’re going to be a physical group,” Lester said of Miami. “I love their secondary. I think they do a good job. They run, they tackle and they’re going to make it hard to run the ball. The young quarterback (freshman Brett Gabbert) is exciting to watch. He’s 18 years old and seems to be comfortable with what they’re doing.”
WMU defeated Miami 40-39 last season in Oxford when Wassink threw for a career-high 439 yards and five TDs, also rushing for a TD.
Wassink ranks third nationally in passing yards (1,769), completing 59.6 percent of his passes while throwing for 12 TDs, but also getting sacked 12 times, including twice during the pivotal final drive against the Rockets.
Can CMU get on a roll?
The MAC is quickly finding out why Jim McElwain was Mountain West Coach of the Year while with Colorado State and SEC Coach of the Year while at Florida.
He is well on his way to earning MAC Coach of the Year honors in his first season with Central Michigan after guiding the Chippewas to a dominating 42-16 win over Eastern Michigan Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
Central Michigan (3-3, 2-1) was 1-11 overall and 0-8 in the MAC last season.
McElwain wants to see the Chippewas put some wins together and they certainly have an opportunity with their next five opponents having a combined 6-21 record, starting with New Mexico State (0-6), which comes into Kelly/Shorts Stadium Saturday.
“I’m really happy for the guys and for the program,” McElwain said. “I’ve seen how far we’ve come since we’ve got here and yet I’m not sure that we have put it on film during a game. I think we’re getting there. We’ve played hard, we still had a couple of turnovers (against EMU), missed a couple of opportunities on field goals to get points and yet we didn’t panic and the guys finished.
“Every week becomes almost like a benchmark for us, like OK, let’s see where we’ve come, let’s see if we’re able to put something back-to-back together, and I’m not sure we’ve done a great job of that at all, so coming into this week it’s really going to be important for us that we’re not looking down the road, but that we know what we can do and now let’s go execute it. That’s the important piece.”
CMU finished against EMU by making big play after big play, with Kalil Pimpleton hauling in an 80-yard TD pass from David Moore for a 14-3 lead, then having running back Jonathan Ward grabbing a Moore pass for a 64-yard TD and 21-3 advantage.
Moore completed 15-of-24 for 279 yards. Pimpleton had five receptions for 112 yards and a TD and now has 40 receptions this season. Ward, who had a 1,000-yard rushing season two years ago, is now healthy again, rushing for 132 yards (12 carries) and two TDs against the Eagles.
McElwain is impressed with Moore’s play.
“I think he’s done a great job of studying what the opponent is giving him and taking advantage of that,” said McElwain of Moore. “He did a really good job for us of taking shots when the shots were there, and also moved his feet, scrambled a couple of times, and got to his second and third reads a couple of times, so he’s playing well.”
McElwain has a decision to make – stay with Moore at quarterback or go back to former No. 1 Quinten Dormady, who is healthy again after missing the last few games due to an injury.
Regardless, McElwain knows he has a team capable of making a run. After New Mexico State, CMU plays at Bowling Green (1-4, 0-1), at Buffalo (2-4, 0-2), hosts Northern Illinois (1-4, 0-1) and plays at Ball State (2-3, 1-0) before a Thanksgiving weekend game at home against Toledo.
Of course, no coach wants to think about the schedule aside from the next game and New Mexico State is coming off a tough 20-13 loss to Liberty.
“They are still trying to find themselves, and yet they played unbelievable last week, lights out against a good Liberty team,” said McElwain. “Us being able to take care of the football is going to be huge.”
Eagles try to rebound
Coach Chris Creighton has work to do before Eastern Michigan faces Ball State at Rynearson Stadium this week.
EMU’s defense is having problems stopping the run, giving up 308 yards on the ground in the lopsided loss to CMU.
Ball State picked up 235 yards on the ground in its 27-20 win over defending MAC West champion Northern Illinois, with Caleb Huntley rushing for 157 yards and two TDs, giving him 440 yards and five TDs for the season.
“It wasn’t very good, wasn’t very good in all three phases,” said Creighton of EMU’s loss to the Chippewas. “Central beat us in every phase from start to finish. They were the more physical team and they made plays and we didn’t.
“We have a homecoming game and it’s good for us to be back home, no doubt. There will be challenges, starting with their offense. (Ball State junior quarterback Drew Plitt) throws a really good ball and is good with his feet. I like the way he leads.
“Am I excited about seeing how we’re going to respond? The answer is yes to that. We have to scratch and claw every week just to be in games, and if we play really, really well we have a chance to win. That’s where we’re at and I think that’s where we’ll continue to be throughout the season.”