Stern tests await Western Michigan, Central Michigan in bowl games
Western Michigan is headed down south for the holidays to play Western Kentucky in the ServPro First Responder Bowl on Monday, Dec. 30 in Dallas.
The game will be at Gerald J. Ford Stadium and is set to begin at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN. The teams have not played each other since 1947.
It will give the Broncos (7-5, 5-3 MAC) a chance to end their season on a high note after failing to earn the MAC West title when they suffered a 17-14 loss at Northern Illinois Nov. 26, opening the door for rival Central Michigan to clinch the West, which it did with a 49-7 rout of Toledo a few days later.
CMU, which lost to Miami in the MAC championship game Saturday at Ford Field, will play in the New Mexico Bowl Dec. 21 against San Diego State.
Eastern Michigan will take the short trip to Ford Field on Dec. 26 to face Pittsburgh (7-5, 4-4 ACC) in the Quick Lane Bowl at 8 p.m. (ESPN).
This is just the second time that WMU, CMU and EMU have played bowl games in the same season. In 2016, the Broncos won the MAC championship before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. CMU lost to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl and EMU lost to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl after having its first winning season since 1995.
Now, the Broncos, Chippewas and Eagles will try to get bowl wins, but all three have tough tests.
The Broncos showcase the MAC Offensive Player of the Year in senior running back LeVante Bellamy (1,412 yards, 23 TDs) and the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in junior linebacker Treshaun Hayward (132 tackles), who played his high school ball at Ann Arbor Skyline.
Western Kentucky has enjoyed a strong season at 8-4 (6-2 Conference USA), ending the season with a three-game winning streak, including a 45-19 win over Arkansas. The Hilltoppers also earned a 17-8 win over an Army team that took Michigan to overtime at the Big House before falling 24-21 back on Sept. 7.
Army, which piled up 200 rushing yards against Michigan, was limited to 137 yards on the ground (36 carries) by Western Kentucky.
Western Kentucky also defeated Conference USA West Division champion UAB (20-13), which lost to Florida Atlantic in the conference championship game over the weekend.
The Hilltoppers have multiple weapons, led by quarterback Ty Storey, who has completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 2,209 yards and 12 TDs. Storey can hand the ball off to junior Gaej Walker (1,115 yards, 8 TDs, 4.9 average) or throw it to Lucky Jackson (77 receptions, 985 yards, 3 TDs) and Jahcour Pearson (71 receptions, 772 yards, 6 TDs).
“We were that close and couldn’t finish it out and that’s something that we can’t let happen and there’s a lot of angry coaches and players, but we have a chance to play one more,” said WMU third-year head coach Tim Lester of losing at Northern Illinois, preventing the Broncos from making a MAC title game appearance.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks, but we have to get better and I have to get better, the coaches have to get better and the players need to get better. The greatest thing is that we have another chance this year to send the seniors out the right way.”
CMU had the biggest turnaround in the nation this season. Jim McElwain took over as head coach last December after John Bonamego was fired following a 1-11 season (0-8 MAC) and led the Chippewas to an 8-5 record, including a West-best 6-2 mark.
The Chippewas slipped in the MAC championship loss, but can get back up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they will face a San Diego State team (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West) that has played well defensively all season, giving up a season-high 23 points in a 23-17 loss to Utah State Sept. 21 and earning wins over UCLA (23-14) and BYU (13-3).
San Diego State earned a share of the MWC West title but lost a head-to-head matchup with Hawaii (14-11), which lost the conference title game to Boise State Saturday.
The Aztecs won six of its final eight games, giving up a total of 107 points, led by cornerback Luq Barcoo, who leads the nation with 24 passes defended, picking off eight passes while breaking up 16.
CMU has an explosive offense, led by quarterback Quinten Dormady, along with All-MAC first-team receivers Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan, and a 1,000-yard back in Jonathan Ward (1,082 yards, 15 TDs), and another back in sophomore Kobe Lewis (977 yards, 11 TDs).
“I can’t wait for our group to be able to play one more game together,” said McElwain, the MAC Coach of the Year. “I am so proud of everything these guys have done to represent this university and this opportunity is well deserved. I am very fortunate to have played in this game before and the people of Albuquerque and the bowl committee go out of their way to make it a great experience for both teams. San Diego State is a great team.”
McElwain led Colorado State to an 8-6 record in 2013, including a Mexico State Bowl win over Washington State, then went 10-2 in 2014 to earn the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year award.
McElwain’s name has been mentioned for the vacant head coaching job at Missouri of the SEC. McElwain was head coach at Florida, leading the Gators to consecutive SEC championship game appearances in 2015 and 2016.
EMU (6-6, 3-5) will play in its third bowl game in the last four years, but its first in the Motor City. The Eagles are led by All-MAC first-team defensive back Vince Calhoun and second-team quarterback Mike Glass.
Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke hired Creighton as the Eagles head coach when she was EMU’s athletic director.
Pitt, coached by former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, was 7-3 (4-2 ACC) before dropping its final two games to Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Pitt’s statement win came in a 35-34 win over then-No. 15 Central Florida. The Panthers also defeated North Carolina (34-27, OT) and played tough in a 17-10 loss to Penn State.
Pitt is led by All-ACC first-team center Jimmy Morrissey and defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman.
New Mexico Bowl
CENTRAL MICHIGAN VS. SAN DIEGO STATE
Kickoff: Dec. 21, 2 p.m., Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Records: Central Michigan 8-5, San Diego State 9-3
Quick Lane Bowl
EASTERN MICHIGAN VS. PITTSBURGH
Kickoff: Dec. 26, 8 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPN/89.1 FM
Records: Eastern Michigan 6-6, Pittsburgh 7-5
First Responder Bowl
WESTERN MICHIGAN VS. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Kickoff: Dec. 30, 12:30 p.m., Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas
Records: Western Michigan 7-5, Western Kentucky 8-4