The road to Ford Field for a shot at the Mid-American Conference championship is a simple one for Western Michigan: Win at Northern Illinois on Nov. 26 and the Broncos clinch the West Division title and punch their ticket to the conference title game on Dec. 7.
WMU third-year head coach Tim Lester is relieved the Broncos finally get their bye week, so some banged-up players can have a couple of extra days off before preparing for their biggest game of the season.
“It’s a good time to get healthy,” Lester said. “There’s no better way than if you want to go to the MAC championship game you have to go on the road and you have to play a team that is the defending MAC West champion. So we just have to go out there and take care of our business. If we win we’re in.
“We knew a couple of weeks ago when we didn’t take care of business against Eastern Michigan (34-27 loss) that we had to win out basically, so we’ve been doing this for weeks now, so for us we’re now in control, but the message hasn’t changed.”
If the Broncos (7-4, 5-2) fail to take care of business at Northern Illinois (4-6, 3-3), it opens the door for Central Michigan (7-4, 5-2) to win the West. The Chippewas finish with a home game Nov. 29 against Toledo (6-4, 3-3).
The Broncos were 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the MAC after losing at Eastern Michigan on a last-second Eagles TD just a month ago.
The Broncos have won three straight since, having a healthy Jon Wassink at quarterback has helped.
Wassink, a senior, missed the final four games of the season due to injuries his sophomore and junior years. He is healthy and playing at a high level, running for a career-high 131 yards in a 35-31 comeback win over Ball State on Nov. 5, then throwing for 322 yards and three TDs in a 37-34 overtime win at Ohio last Tuesday, giving the Broncos their first road win of the season.
Wassink has completed 60 percent of his passes and leads the MAC in passing yards (2,719) while throwing 19 TD passes.
The Broncos haven’t turned the ball over the last three games and have just two turnovers in the last five games.
“I’m a big believer in touchdowns and turnovers, and that’s why we’re really aggressive in the red zone because I believe touchdowns matter way more than field goals, and we do everything we can to take care of the ball,” Lester said. “I think those are the two most important stats.”
It’s a big difference having Wassink on the field. The Broncos lost to Ohio 59-14 in Week 10 in Kalamazoo last year with Wassink on the sidelines.
“He just can do so much and we’re at our best when he’s out there, and obviously you have guys like Gio (Giovanni Ricci), (Keith) Mixon, Skyy Moore and Bells (LeVante Bellamy), that are all different offensive weapons,” Lester said. “But no matter how many weapons you have you still have to hold on to the ball. We’re lucky to have the weapons, but we’re going to continue to focus on making sure we take care of the ball because if we do it that’s when we’re at our best.”
Defending MAC champion Northern Illinois grabbed the attention of Lester last Wednesday with its dramatic 31-28 win at Toledo, putting the Broncos in position to control their own destiny. Toledo defeated WMU 31-24 Oct. 5.
“We know Northern has a lot of talented players on defense; they’ve been that way for 20 years now,” Lester said.
WMU senior tight end Giovanni Ricci, Wassink’s roommate, played a big role in the Broncos’ win at Ohio, coming up with a pair of TD catches. He has developed into a great leader and is one of three Broncos invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl, which will be Jan. 18 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Ricci wants to get back to Ford Field to play in another MAC title game after coming up with a big fumble recovery in the Broncos’ 29-23 win over Ohio for the conference championship back in 2016.
Many WMU fans wondered who Wassink’s primary receiver would be after Jayden Reed transferred to Michigan State after a very productive freshman season (56 receptions, 797 yards, eight TDs) for the Broncos last year.
Wassink has spread the ball around to a number of receivers, including freshman Skyy Moore, who had a 61-yard TD against Ohio, and grad transfer Keith Mixon Jr., who caught 10 passes for 84 yards against Ohio, along with Ricci.
The Broncos have a balanced attack with senior running back LeVante Bellamy ranking sixth nationally with 1,284 yards while leading the nation in TDs (21).
Bellamy was bottled up all night by Ohio’s defense – until OT, when he had to get the job done after Ohio took a 34-31 lead with a field goal in its extra session chance.
On first down, Bellamy broke loose for a 20-yard gain and scored from four yards out two plays later to start the celebration and put the Broncos in position to win the MAC West.
CMU's big turnaround
Jim McElwain has done an impressive job at CMU, helping turn the Chippewas’ program around from a 1-11 team a year ago to a 7-4 team, which will put him as the frontrunner for his third Coach of the Year award in the last six years.
McElwain earned Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2014 when Colorado State was 10-4, then earned SEC Coach of the Year honors while at Florida in 2015.
The Chippewas were 0-8 in the MAC last season, costing John Bonamego his job after he guided them to an 8-5 record (6-2 MAC) the previous year.
McElwain could get the Chips back to 6-2 in conference play with a win over Toledo. CMU’s last win over the Rockets was in 2009, the Chippewas’ last MAC championship season.
CMU pulled out a 45-44 win over Ball State in Muncie Saturday, fighting back from deficits of 27-11 at halftime and 41-24 in the third quarter.
The Chippewas scored TDs on five of their six second-half possessions, including a 10-play, 72-yard drive to take a 45-44 lead with 1:01 left on Tommy Lazzaro’s 2-yard run.
Senior quarterback Quinten Dormady completed 27-of-38 for 356 yards, with senior running back Jonathan Ward rushing for 105 yards and four TDs to push him closer to the 1,000-yard mark (968, 14 TDs). Ward earned the MAC West Division Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“It was a fun game to be a part of from the standpoint of the competitive nature that the teams were playing in, and more than anything just to see our guys have a sense of accomplishment and it makes you real happy,” McElwain said.
“The accomplishment of these players has been just short of quite remarkable and yet they know we’re playing for a lot, and no matter what the outcome is as we go into our last home game against Toledo, and it’s a team that we haven’t beat in 10 years, so we have a lot of work to do.”
EMU nears bowl game
Eastern Michigan snapped a two-game losing streak with a 42-14 rout of Akron Tuesday to get back to the .500 mark (5-5).
The Eagles can become bowl eligible win a win at Northern Illinois Tuesday.
Senior running back Shaq Vann rushed for 142 yards and four TDs while quarterback Mike Glass hit on 20-of-25 passes for 246 yards.
The Eagles end their season Nov. 29 against Kent State (4-6, 3-3) at Rynearson Stadium.