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MAC notes: Central Michigan controls fate in MAC West title race

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Central Michigan traveled to Bowling Green on Saturday and earned its first road win of the season with a 38-20 victory, piling up 553 total yards with a balanced attack.

“I’m just so proud of this team and happy for our players," first-year CMU head coach Jim McElwain said. "They did something that they have never done, going on the road and getting a win.”

Central Michigan's Jonathan Ward has rushed 661 yards this season, 393 and six touchdowns during a three-game winning streak while averaging 7.7 yards a carry.

Now, the Chippewas (5-3, 3-1) control their own destiny for the Mid-American Conference West Division title heading into the final third of the season.

CMU — picked to finish last in the MAC West after a 1-11 2018 season — has put itself in that position with a three-game winning streak, showing during that stretch it has the best running attack in the MAC.

And, Toledo (4-3, 1-2) — the MAC West preseason favorite — has stumbled, losing two straight, 20-7 to rival Bowling Green and 52-14 this past Saturday to Ball State (4-3, 3-0), opening the door for the Chippewas and Ball State to make a run at the title.

CMU will play at defending MAC East champion Buffalo (3-4, 1-2) Saturday, then host Northern Illinois (2-5, 1-2) Nov. 2 before having a bye week prior to games at Ball State on Nov. 16 and against Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium Nov. 29 to close out the regular season.

“This is going to be a huge game for us from the standpoint of we’re now heading into the end of October and the games actually mean something from the standpoint of where we’re headed as an organization,” McElwain said. “We’re not just going to be able to lineup and say, ‘Here we go.’ We have to stay balanced and take our shots. We have to go on the road and bring our own juice.

“There’s still so many things we still need to do to become a complete football team and complete football teams are ones that win championships. I don’t consider us kind of in that box yet, and yet here’s the really good thing, we’ve actually put ourselves in a position to where every game is relevant and that’s kind of cool.”

The Chippewas have averaged 40.7 points, 542 total yards and 305 rushing yards during their winning streak.

“That’s pretty cool isn’t it,” McElwain said, “and yet I think when you look at the numbers going into really the fourth quarter I think we’re probably really balanced and probably more passing.

“I think really to me the important statistic is more so that we’ve been able to run the ball when we’ve had a lead, and that’s the thing that is really going to mean when you’re able to close a game out by saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to run it and you can put everybody up there and we’re still going to be able to grind it out.’

CMU picked up 101 of its 308 rushing yards in the fourth quarter of its 42-16 win over Eastern Michigan, then 92 of its 352 rushing yards in the final quarter of its 42-28 win over New Mexico State and 109 of its 254 rushing yards in the fourth quarter of the 38-20 win over Bowling Green.

Senior running back Jonathan Ward has rushed 661 yards this season, 393 and six touchdowns during the winning streak while averaging 7.7 yards a carry. Sophomore Kobe Lewis has rushed for 616 yards, 364 and four TDs during the last three games, averaging 7.2 yards.

Quarterback Quinten Dormady completed 22-of-36 for 295 yards and a TD with receiver Jacory Sullivan having a career game (eight catches, 126 yards, TD) and tight end Tony Poljan (four catches, 89 yards) and receiver Kalil Pimpleton (four, 52) continuing their strong play in the passing game.

CMU’s running game will be tested by Buffalo which ranks No. 1 in the conference in rushing defense, limiting opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground, holding Akron to just three yards rushing in Saturday’s 21-0 win over the Zips.

Sexton comes through again for Eagles

Matt Sexton is making sure he is finishing his career with the Eagles (4-3, 1-2) in style, making lasting memories with game winning plays.

After blocking a punt and scoring in the final seconds of a 34-29 win over Central Connecticut State in Eastern Michigan’s home opener in late September, Sexton grabbed a 34-yard TD pass from sophomore Preston Hutchinson with 36 seconds left for the difference in a 34-27 win over Western Michigan on Saturday night at Rynearson Stadium.

And, it saved the season for the Eagles, who looked like they were headed for an 0-3 MAC start when WMU senior running back LeVante Bellamy scored on an 8-yard TD run to cap off an impressive 11-play, 64-yard drive with 1:56 left for a 27-26 lead.

Hutchinson, making his first career start, picked apart WMU’s defense, completing 31-of-36 passes for 357 yards and three TDs, also rushing for a TD to earn MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors. His 86.1 percent completion percentage was second highest for an Eagles’ quarterback in the last 20 years.

“I was really, really proud of how we responded to a tough stretch, not surprised, just really proud of our guys,” said EMU coach Chris Creighton, who is now 1-5 against the Broncos. “It was going to take a total program effort and I think that’s what we got so it was a really good night for us. Our guys played really hard and played to the end and ended up pulling it out.”

On Hutchinson’s performance, Creighton said: “He has been here now for multiple seasons and is always locked in, and learning and getting himself ready to play, always has been that way. His first year, our defensive staff just absolutely loved him as our scout team quarterback. He’s incredibly hard working, he’s a really good athlete."

The Eagles will try to keep Toledo down when they play Saturday afternoon at the Glass Bowl. The Rockets gave up 580 total yards, 374 on the ground in their loss to Ball State.

EMU ended an 11-game losing streak in the series with Toledo last year, coming up with a 28-26 win in Ypsilanti.

Broncos’ season spinning out of control

Things were looking great for WMU when Bellamy scored on his 8-yard TD run with 1:56 left to give the Broncos a 27-26 lead over Eastern Michigan.

After all, a defensive stop would have given the Broncos a 3-1 MAC record and had them feeling good about a shot at the West Division title with Toledo — which beat WMU 31-24 on Oct. 5 — losing its second conference game.

But, the Broncos couldn’t get that stop and now they sit at 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the MAC and stuck in neutral.

And, that’s the problem since Tim Lester was brought in as head coach after P.J. Fleck departed for Minnesota after guiding the Broncos to the MAC championship in 2016, along with a top-25 spot and Cotton Bowl appearance.

The Broncos have fallen from a great program to mediocre in three short years, going 17-16 (11-9 MAC), 6-6 (4-4) in 2017, 7-6 (5-3) last year and now at 4-4 (2-2).

Expect Lester to be on the hot seat in Year 4 if he somehow doesn’t find the Broncos running the table in the last four games to put them at 8-4 and 6-2.

The Broncos had beaten the Eagles the previous five years and were attempting to repeat as Michigan MAC champions, but couldn’t slow down Hutchinson — a quarterback who was making his debut — who picked apart WMU’s defense on the winning 74-yard drive, hitting on five straight passes for 70 yards and on his 34-yard TD pass to Sexton the cornerback had his back turned to the ball.

“Obviously it was extremely disappointing,” Lester said of the loss. “We came out early on and I felt we started fairly well, scored on our first two drives and we held them to one field goal (for 14-3 lead). Second half, they did a great job offensively, give their coaches credit. They held the ball for 35 minutes to our 25, so they kept our offense on the sidelines and they were grinding out first downs.

“We were able to go down and take the lead with less than two minutes, and we needed a stop and couldn’t get it, but give credit to them, they made plays. We have to play better.”

WMU’s defense has been terrible in its losses, giving up 582 yards, including 251 on the ground (34 carries) against Michigan State, 545 total yards, including 258 on the ground (47 carries) against Syracuse, 475, including 275 rushing (53 chances) against Toledo and then 547 to the Eagles with 407 coming through the air.

“On all three levels it’s different things,” Lester said when asked about what changes he wants to see on defense. “On the front level, we have to play with our hands, can’t be looking in the backfield. We didn’t have any pass rush to put any pressure on him. On the second level we did a poor job of rerouting, and on the back end we have to tackle better.”

Now, Bowling Green comes into Waldo Stadium Saturday and the Broncos will try to improve to 5-0 on their home turf.

After pulling off the upset against Toledo, Bowling Green lost to CMU to fall to 2-5 (1-2 MAC) and ranks No. 11 in rushing defense, now facing Bellamy who ranks fifth nationally with 877 yards rushing and 13 TDs.