Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard hired Tim Lester to carry the torch and continue what P.J. Fleck accomplished by making the Broncos a Mid-American Conference championship program.
Fleck guided the Broncos to an unbeaten regular season in 2016, including a MAC championship win over Ohio at Ford Field, before suffering a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin to finish in the Top 25.
Fleck moved on to Minnesota and Beauregard picked Lester, who was the Broncos’ quarterback when they lost at Marshall in the MAC championship game 20 years ago.
WMU slipped to 6-6 and 7-6 in Lester’s first two seasons, but the Broncos (7-4, 5-2) have a shot at playing in the MAC championship game once again, if they can get a win at Northern Illinois (4-7, 3-4) Tuesday at 7 p.m. to clinch the West Division title.
Three consecutive wins — after a loss at Eastern Michigan on Oct. 19 — have put the Broncos in control of their own destiny.
“Our guys are fired up,” Lester said Monday. “We’ve been in this situation for a month now where we have to win to stay alive. We’ve been able to tie three together, but this is what you play for — you play for November games that matter a ton, and every play matters.
“It’s going to be nationally televised (ESPNU), so our guys are excited. If you want to represent the West in the MAC championship you have to go to the defending champs’ place and win on the road.”
Northern Illinois is the defending MAC champion but has struggled in its first year under Thomas Hammock, who replaced Rod Carey, who moved on to become head coach at Temple.
Northern Illinois had been tough to play at home, but the Huskies lost to Ball State (27-20) and Eastern Michigan (45-17) in DeKalb this season, with the loss to EMU last Tuesday putting them at 4-7. They will miss a bowl game for the second time in 12 years.
Still, Lester knows Northern Illinois will be a tough out. The Broncos defeated Northern Illinois 28-21 in Kalamazoo last year, but they haven’t won in DeKalb since 2007, losing five straight, including 35-31 in 2017.
If WMU fails to take care of business, Central Michigan can win the MAC West win a win over Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant on Friday. If the Broncos and Chippewas lose, WMU will still represent the West in the MAC title game at Ford Field Dec. 7 against East champion Miami.
“It’s been 12 years and I’ve made sure that my team is well aware of that,” Lester said. “It’s a tough place to play. We’ve always seemed to play them late and it’s always been a weather game with the wind and they’ve done a great job of running the ball the last 10 years, so it plays into their hands quite a bit.”
Northern Illinois has another good running back in 1,000-yard rusher Tre Harbison, but the Broncos have a balanced offensive attack in senior running back Levante Bellamy, who has used his sub-4.3 speed to rush for 1,284 yards and 21 TDs, along with senior quarterback Jon Wassink (2,719 yards, 19 TDs).
Lester, who has also been the team’s offensive coordinator the last two years, is thrilled to have Wassink running his offense after Wassink didn’t play a November game the past two years due to injuries.
“That was one of our goals coming into the season: Can we get Jon finally through a season?” Lester said. “He’s playing at a high level, mentally for sure. He gives us another dimension to our offense when he can run the ball and it makes us tougher to stop. Obviously, he’s back there with Bellamy, which helps, but it feels great to have a senior quarterback heading into our final game.”
The Broncos haven’t turned the ball over during their three-game winning streak and have just three turnovers during their last five games.
Title possible for CMU
Jim McElwain inherited a 1-11 team but goes into the final week of the regular season with an opportunity to win the MAC West.
McElwain says the Chippewas will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball to have any chance of defeating Toledo (6-5, 3-4) to finish the regular season at 8-4, 6-2 in conference play.
Although this is McElwain’s first year at CMU, he is well aware of the Chippewas’ history with Toledo, losing their last nine games to the Rockets since the Chips’ last MAC title run in 2009.
“It’s a program that everybody in this league kind of chases,” said McElwain of Toledo. “I really like the players on their football team. This will be a huge challenge. Our program hasn’t beaten them for like 10 straight years, so we have a lot to overcome.”
CMU turned the ball over three times in its last game, a 45-44 comeback win at Ball State Nov. 16 when senior running back Jonathan Ward rushed for 105 yards and four TDs to give him 968 yards on the season.
Senior quarterback Quinten Dormady hit on 27-of-38 for 356 yards in the win over Ball State, throwing a first-quarter interception that led to a Ball State touchdown before leading the Chippewas on five TD drives in six second half possessions to win the game.
When McElwain was asked if the Chippewas would be watching the WMU-Northern Illinois game, he replied: “We have so many things to play for moving forward and it doesn’t matter the outcome of that ball game,” McElwain said. “We have to take care of the ball. We obviously threw an ill-advised interception in our last game that kind of started a downhill slide for us from the standpoint of three straight turnovers on possessions, and for us to be successful we have to learn the value of that football.”
EMU eyes another winning season
Winning seasons were hard to come by for Eastern Michigan prior to Chris Creighton’s arrival at Ypsilanti, and that what makes Friday’s regular-season finale against Kent State (5-6, 4-3) such an important one at Rynearson Stadium.
The Eagles (6-5, 3-4), who went 20 straight years without a winning season prior to 2016, can clinch their third winning season in the last four years with a win. They have won two straight — a 42-14 rout at Akron and a 45-17 win at Northern Illinois — to put themselves in that position, with senior quarterback Mike Glass and senior running back Shaq Vann leading the way.
Creighton was 0-5 against Northern Illinois before the Eagles earned the lopsided win on the road.
“We took the ball away (forced four turnovers) and were able to capitalize off of those takeaways, and so for us it was a big deal because we just have tremendous respect for that program and for all they’ve accomplished. It was a neat night for Eastern Michigan football,” said Creighton, who is 25-24 the last four years. “(Being bowl eligible) means a lot because our conference is really good, and our conference has a lot of parity. Winning in our league is difficult to do.”
Kent State’s last winning record came in 2012, when it was 11-3 overall and 8-0 in the East, defeating Northern Illinois 44-37 in the MAC championship game.
Vann ran for 142 yards and four TDs at Akron and Glass completed 20-of-24 for 235 yards and three TDs in the win at Northern Illinois.
Vann has rushed for 243 yards and five TDs the last two games while Glass has connected on 40-of-49 for 481 yards during that same span.