MAC notebook: After upset at Pitt, WMU braces for 'unbelievable test' with San Jose State

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Western Michigan handed Tim Lester his biggest win in his five years guiding the program with a 44-41 victory at Pitt on Saturday, the Broncos' first win over a Power Five program since defeating Northwestern and Illinois during their MAC championship run in 2016.

The Broncos (2-1) played turnover-free ball while forcing three turnovers and scoring 14 points off of them. They also pounded the ball on the ground (160 yards, 48 attempts) to dominate the time of possession (40:15 to 19:45) while standout junior quarterback Kaleb Eleby got the job done through the air, completing 23 of 34 passes for 337 yards and three TDs.

While Pitt's Kenny Pickett picked apart WMU’s defense, throwing for 382 yards and six TDs, the two fumble recoveries by Zaire Barnes (10 tackles) and interception by Dorian Jackson to end a scoring threat was enough to earn the Broncos the upset win over a Pitt team that beat Tennessee the previous week.

Quarterback Kaleb Eleby and the Broncos will look to feed off the program's first win over a Power Five opponent in five seasons.

“Couldn’t be happier for our team,” Lester said. “Our guys played really efficiently on offense and we controlled the clock because of it. Defensively, we gave up too many big plays, but we got three turnovers which made the difference. We have a lot to clean up, but the defense really played hard and ran to the ball.”

The road doesn’t get any easier for the Broncos, who bring in defending Mountain West Conference champion San Jose State to Waldo Stadium on Saturday.

WMU’s defense will have to clean up some stuff to slow down the much-traveled Nick Starkel.

Starkel originally committed to Oklahoma State before deciding to play at Texas A&M, where he set the program’s bowl record by completing 42 of 63 passes for 499 yards and four TDs in a Belk Bowl loss to Wake Forest in 2017. He then moved on to Arkansas in 2019 and became the first Razorbacks quarterback since Ryan Mallett (2010) to have consecutive 300-yard, three-TD games.

Starkel, now a grad student, picked apart Boise State’s defense, throwing for 453 yards and three TDs in a 34-20 conference championship game win last season to get San Jose State to 7-0 and a No. 22 ranking before an Arizona Bowl loss to MAC champion Ball State.

“San Jose is a great team,” Lester said. “They have a five-star quarterback and a lot of speed. Defensively, their D-line and linebackers are extremely physical. It’s going to be an unbelievable test.”

San Jose is 2-1 with wins over Southern Utah (45-14) and Hawaii (17-13) sandwiched between a 30-7 loss at USC.

Eleby and company will be going up against a defense led by defensive lineman Cade Hall, last season's Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.

Eagles aided by transfers 

Eastern Michigan bounced back from its loss at Wisconsin with a 42-28 win at UMass with a pair of transfers playing a major role in helping the Eagles pile up more than 500 yards of offense.

Ben Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati who has emerged as the No. 1 quarterback, threw for 298 yards and a TD without an interception while senior running back Jawon Hamilton (UCF/James Madison) rushed for 122 yards and a score.

“We played both quarterbacks (Bryant and Preston Hutchinson) in all three games, really played them more evenly in the first two, and then just got off to a really good start there with Ben so played him the vast majority of the game this last week,” Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said. “Like I’ve said I really do believe you need two quarterbacks and we’ve got two really good ones, so we’ll see how this continues to flush itself out.”

Hamilton, who is from Dade County, Florida, played a role in Central Florida’s unbeaten season in 2017 — when the school’s administrators ruled the team national champions following a 13-0 finish and Peach Bowl win over Auburn — before suffering an injury. He moved on to James Madison and rushed for 919 yards in 2019 to help team reach the FCS national title game, a 28-20 loss to North Dakota State.

“The running back group is a huge strength for us and Jawon plays so hard, so fast and has an awesome burst,” Creighton said. “He is super motivated and he’s a perfect fit for our program. He had a great game (against UMass) and there’s more to come.”

UMass (0-3) is one of the worst programs in FBS, now 1-18 in Walt Bell’s three years.

Next up for the Eagles is a nonconference game with Texas State of the Sun Belt Conference.

Texas State was 2-10 last season, losing four games by seven or fewer points, and has struggled this season. The Bobcats (1-2) suffered a 42-34 loss Saturday at home to FCS foe Incarnate Word in a game that had 12 fumbles.

Bryant should be all smiles after watching film where Texas State’s defense gave 376 yards and four TDs through the air.

Still, Creighton knows the Eagles must protect the ball since Texas State has forced seven turnovers this season. He also is worried about facing quarterback Brady McBride.

“They have some major weapons offensively,” Creighton said. “Their quarterback is dangerous. He can really run. He’s a twitchy guy, he has a cannon of an arm and he’s not afraid to use it, so he is absolutely dangerous.

“They have some really good backs, not just one, and their wide receiver (Marcell Barbee) has been their calling card and that hasn’t changed. In the past, they’ve really gone fast. They really stretch the field and that quarterback has the ability to get it to guys who can run and go get it.”

Texas State was competitive in a 29-20 loss at Baylor when McBride was picked off three times, and in a 23-17 overtime win over Florida International.

What the doctor ordered

Central Michigan (1-2) plays host to Florida International and the Chips have to feel happy to return to Kelly/Shorts Stadium after last Saturday’s 49-21 loss to LSU at Tiger Stadium.

FIU is 1-2 with its lone win coming against FCS Long Island (48-10) in the season opener, followed by losses to Texas State and Texas Tech (54-21).

This is not the same FIU team Mario Cristobal took into Ford Field for the Little Caesars Bowl back in 2010 when T.Y. Hilton led his team to a win over Toledo.

FIU has forced just one turnover all season and CMU has showed its ability to move the ball, including 475 total yards in a season-opening loss to Missouri, 515 in a rout of Robert Morris and 284 in the loss to LSU.

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain has gone to a two-QB system, using Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon along with last year’s starter Daniel Richardson.

McElwain will try to get CMU’s running game going after the Chips were limited to 56 yards on 31 attempts against LSU, with standout Lew Nichols III gaining 18 yards on 12 carries.