MAC notes: Do-it-all D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan on brink of West title
Western Michigan showed it is never out of a game as long as it has one of the nation’s most exciting players in D’Wayne Eskridge on the field.
Eskridge, who has 4.33 speed, helped the Broncos remain unbeaten Saturday by making several big plays in a 30-27 comeback win over Northern Illinois at Waldo Stadium.
Now the Broncos (4-0) can clinch the MAC West title Saturday with a win over winless Eastern Michigan (0-4) in Kalamazoo, coupled with a Central Michigan (3-1) win over Ball State (3-1) in Mount Pleasant.
WMU plays at Ball State in the regular-season finale Dec. 12 with the MAC title game set for Dec. 18 at Ford Field.
It was the start of WMU’s payback tour since Northern Illinois prevented the Broncos from making a MAC championship game appearance last year by upsetting them 17-14 during the final week of the regular season, opening the door for CMU to earn the West title.
And in a game where Northern Illinois had 31 more plays (80-49) and had a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession, the Broncos came back from a 27-20 fourth-quarter deficit when sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby found Eskridge for a 57-yard pass to set up Eleby’s 26-yard scoring strike to Skyy Moore to pull them even with 9:12 left.
Then, Eskridge again went to work in the final minutes, first grabbing a 14-yard pass to the Northern Illinois 36, then breaking loose for a 27-yard run to set up Gavin Peddie’s 24-yard field goal with 2:23 remaining.
Eskridge finished with 285 all-purpose yards, highlighted by a 100-yard kickoff return midway through the second quarter. He had seven receptions for 134 yards and now has 21 catches for 591 yards and six TDs. His average per reception (28.1) ranks No. 1 nationally.
“Give credit to everyone on that team (kick return),” said WMU fourth-year head coach Tim Lester of Eskridge’s 100-yard TD return. “D (Eskridge) didn’t get touched, he made one guy miss and that just shows that there’s a lot of guys doing a lot of good things on that unit. That’s a unit for us that can make a difference in a game and we have to continue to find different ways to get D the ball, and that’s obviously one way because every time he touches it good things tend to happen.”
WMU had a similar game against Toledo earlier this month when the Rockets held an 85-57 advantage in plays and a 38:32-21:28 edge in time of possession, but the Broncos scored two TDs in the final 45 seconds to pull out a 41-38 win.
Turnovers cost EMU
While the Broncos have players in Eleby and Eskridge to help them earn comeback wins, EMU has had problems closing out games, allowing CMU to finish Saturday’s game with a 25-3 fourth-quarter run for a 31-23 win.
The Eagles looked impressive in building a 20-6 lead with 3:07 left in the third quarter before CMU went on consecutive 75-yard TD drives to pull within 23-21.
The Chippewas went on to earn the win by getting a pair of interceptions, the first by Devonni Reed (Belleville) to the EMU 32 to set up Kobe Lewis’ nine-yard TD run for a 31-23 lead, the second by Donte Kent in the final minute to secure the victory.
Turnovers have cost EMU and the Eagles had five (three interceptions, two fumbles) against CMU with junior Preston Hutchinson hitting on 23-of-37 passes for 365 yards but failing to throw a TD pass while throwing the three picks. He now has seven TD passes and six interceptions.
EMU let a 24-13 second-half lead slip away earlier this month in a 38-31 loss to Ball State with Caleb Huntley scoring on a 1-yard run for the difference with six seconds remaining.
EMU defeated the Broncos 34-27 on a TD pass in the final minute last season. The Eagles will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball if they want to defeat WMU again. They have eight turnovers in their last two games, three in a 45-28 loss to Toledo Nov. 18.
It was Hutchinson’s coming out party in last year’s win over the Broncos. He made his first start, filling in for an injured Mike Glass and connecting on 31-of-36 passes for 357 yards and three TDs, including the game-winning 34-yard toss to Mathew Sexton with 36 seconds left.
“He can do a lot of things, the combination of run and pass is unique,” said Lester of Hutchinson, who has thrown for seven TDs, running for six more TDs. “The fact that he’s accurate with the football and when he doesn’t like what he sees he takes off running. I think he’s had a hand in every single touchdown they’ve scored, either ran it in or thrown it so he’s the guy, a one-man show.”
The Eagles have only picked up 108 yards on the ground the last two games on 62 carries.
EMU’s defense has allowed an average of 506 total yards, 255 on the ground. Still, the Eagles lead the MAC in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on just 60 percent of their opportunities.
“They do a good job up front,” Lester said. “They are huge, and so when you get into the red zone against their base defense things get tight, everything gets squished down on top of you and it really plays into the defensive structure’s hands. When you’re out of the red zone there’s a lot of pressure on their safeties to help on the run and over the top. It’s almost better to score from the 40 than on the 10, so with the big plays they’ve been beaten over the top a couple of times.”
Nichols stars for CMU
Former Detroit Cass Tech star Lew Nichols has had a couple of big games during his sophomore season for the Chippewas.
Nichols played a major role in CMU’s comeback win over the Eagles, rushing for 196 yards (29 carries) and two TDs. And Nichols rushed for 98 yards on 15 carries during the final 15 minutes to help the Chippewas go on the 25-3 run to earn the win.
Nichols showed he could catch the ball out of the backfield in a 40-10 rout of Northern Illinois Nov. 11, scoring on a 58-yard TD reception while also breaking loose for a 36-yard TD run in the game.
Now things get interesting for the defending West champion Chips. They play host to a talented Ball State team they defeated 45-44 last year, then conclude the regular season at Toledo Dec. 12.
If the Broncos stumble in their final two games, things would open up for CMU to again represent the West in the MAC title game – if the Chippewas can defeat the Cardinals and Rockets. The Chips defeated Toledo 49-7 last year.
First, CMU will have to slow down Ball State senior quarterback Drew Plitt, who has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,059 yards and six TDs, connecting on 26-of-35 for 304 yards and two TDs in a 27-24 win over Toledo Saturday.