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MAC notes: High-powered WMU on payback tour vs. Northern Illinois, EMU

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Western Michigan is off to a rare 3-0 start, taking care of business against the MAC West Division preseason favorites in Toledo and defending champion Central Michigan.

Now the Broncos are on their payback tour.

After a season-opening 58-13 rout of Akron, the Broncos scored two TDs in the final 45 seconds to shock Toledo, 41-38, then scored 38 unanswered points to turn a 14-0 deficit into a 38-14 lead on their way to defeating bitter rival CMU last Wednesday, 52-44.

D’Wayne Eskridge

Toledo was picked to win the MAC West by the league coaches with CMU picked to win the West by media members by a narrow margin (119-118) over Toledo.

WMU redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby has played well, completing 67.7 percent of his passes for 928 yards and 11 TDs with just one interception. His primary receiver is senior D’Wayne Eskridge (14 receptions, 457 yards, six TDs).

The Broncos, who had 3-0 starts in their MAC championship seasons of 1988 and 2016, as well as in 1994, are averaging 50.3 points and 516 total yards.

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“It’s huge, obviously we’re in a good position, but the next two teams we play beat us last year – Northern (Illinois) beat us and Eastern (Michigan) beat us – so in the MAC West we have to be ready but it definitely put us in a great position moving forward when it comes to tiebreakers and all the different things that can happen,” said WMU fourth-year head coach Tim Lester of the 3-0 start.

“We’re only halfway there. We have to get healthy. We have to continue to play better for 60 minutes. We’ve been hot and cold, but we never give up. We stumble, but we don’t fall. We’re looking forward to getting guys back.”

The Broncos are in the driver’s seat for the MAC West title, hosting Northern Illinois (0-3) on Saturday, then Eastern Michigan (0-3) on Dec. 5 before finishing the COVID-19 shortened season Dec. 12 at Ball State (2-1).

The Broncos lost at Northern Illinois 17-14 on Thanksgiving week a year ago, which knocked them off the top of the West standings, preventing them from playing in the MAC championship game. That opened the door for CMU to play in the title game at Ford Field, where the Chippewas lost to Miami (Ohio).

Northern Illinois finished 4-8 (3-5 MAC). The Broncos also lost at EMU earlier in the season 34-27 on a last-second TD toss.

Of course, the Broncos didn’t have Eskridge, who has 4.33 speed, on the field in either of those losses since he had a season-ending collarbone injury in a Week 4 loss to Syracuse.

Eskridge leads the nation in all-purpose yards (245 yards) and yards per reception (32.6) while ranking second in receiving yards per game (152.3).

Eskridge, who recently accepted an invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, was proud of his team’s comeback win at CMU.

“We got punched in the mouth early, so we had to really recoup and come back and be the team that we are and I’m proud of those guys for just toughening it out,” said Eskridge, who led the comeback with four receptions for 212 yards and TD grabs of 33, 72 and 85 yards. “I always felt we had our foot on the gas pedal, and once we got that 2 ½-hour bus ride out of our system it all came together.”

Eskridge also showed his toughness with a big special-teams tackle on CMU All-MAC first-team standout Kalil Pimpleton in the first half, then recovering two onside kicks in the final minutes.

The Broncos have multiple receiving threats in Eskridge, junior Jaylen Hall (Macomb Dakota) and sophomore Skyy Moore. With Moore sidelined against CMU, Hall stepped up and grabbed four passes for 110 yards and two TDs (9, 43).

The Broncos have shown a balanced attack with Michigan State transfer La’Darius Jefferson rushing for 150 yards on 33 carries against the Chippewas.

Lester was impressed with Eleby, who completed 12-of-20 for 382 yards and five TDs with an early interception.

“Kaleb is definitely playing well beyond his years and he can still play better,” said Lester. “He’s sharp in the RPO game and he’s hungry. I like his leadership ability. He keeps people calm and he also gets after people.”

Lester expects Moore back in the lineup against Northern Illinois and hopes to also have defensive ends Ali Fayad (calf) and Andre Carter (ankle) back after they also missed the CMU game.

The Broncos will need Fayad and Carter to put pressure on Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers, who hit on 27-of-40 passes for 300 yards in last week’s 31-25 loss to Ball State.

Northern Illinois gave up 433 total yards in its 40-10 loss to CMU the previous week with the Chippewas picking up 237 on the ground.

EMU vs. CMU showdown

EMU (0-3) is still in search of its first win of the season after getting dominated by Toledo last Wednesday, 45-28, giving up 489 total yards and trailing 38-7 early in the third quarter.

The Eagles will host CMU (2-1) Friday (4 p.m., CBSSN) at Rynearson Stadium, where they have defeated the Chippewas the last two times the teams have played in Ypsilanti.

Don’t be surprised if its another close game since 39 of the Eagles’ last 45 games have been an EMU win or a one-possession loss. The Eagles lost their first two games this season, 27-23 at Kent State and 38-31 to Ball State.

Preston Hutchinson has thrown for 735 yards and seven TDs but has also been picked off three times for the Eagles.

CMU second-year coach Jim McElwain showed he will have multiple players handle snaps, using both receiver Kalil Pimpleton and running back Kobe Lewis out of the wildcat. Pimpleton scored on a 65-yard run out of the formation in the loss to the Broncos.

Lewis, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, has rushed for 285 yards (4.8 average) and five TDs this season. Pimpleton grabbed an 80-yard TD pass in last year’s 42-16 win over the Eagles in Mount Pleasant.

The Eagles and Chippewas each have forced five turnovers this season, which could be the difference in Friday’s outcome.