MAC notebook: Western Michigan seeks to finish this time around against Ball State

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Kaleb Eleby and Western Michigan will be looking for revenge when the Broncos carry their four-game winning streak into Saturday afternoon’s game at Waldo Stadium against defending Mid-American Conference champion Ball State.

WMU (4-1, 1-0) knows it will have to take care of the football and finish the game against Ball State (2-3, 0-1) to stay ahead in the MAC West Division.

You see, the Broncos will well on their way to clinching the West Division title last year at Ball State, holding a 14-point lead and a dominating 392-140 edge in total yards before a fourth-quarter collapse cost them a shot at the conference championship.

Coach Tim Lester's Western Michigan team blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter in last season's meeting against Ball State.

Ball State went on to upset Buffalo in the MAC title game and defeat San Jose State in a bowl game to finish in the top 25, while the Broncos stayed home for the holidays.

Western Michigan has done an excellent job of taking care of the football this season, ranking No. 2 nationally — behind Michigan — with two turnovers. In fact, the Broncos are the lone team in the FBC to not turnover the ball in FBC competition.

“We really value the ball and our running backs and wide receivers have really played with great details in terms of ball security,” WMU coach Tim Lester said. “Kaleb has also done a good job of being accurate with his passes and limiting opportunities for the defense.”

Eleby hit on 21 of 33 passes for 279 yards and two TDs in Saturday’s 24-17 win at Buffalo and has connected on 61.9% of his passes this season for 1,181 yards and nine TDs without an interception.

Eleby’s primary weapon the last three weeks — in victories over Pitt, San Jose State and Buffalo — has been sophomore receiver Skyy Moore, who has 32 receptions for 391 yards and three TDs during that stretch.

Moore had 25 receptions all of last season while playing a supporting role to D’Wayne Eskridge, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks

“Skyy has been doing a great job preparing and getting better each week,” Lester said. “Our run game has gotten him some good looks and he has taken advantage of them.”

Moore hauled in a 12-yard TD pass from Eleby for a 7-0 lead over Buffalo, then grabbed a 64-yard TD toss for a 17-10 lead with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

WMU’s defense has done a great job of forcing turnovers, a reason the Broncos have a plus-9 margin in turnover ratio. That includes a blindside hit by junior linebacker Zaire Barnes on Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease that caused a fumble which the Broncos recovered after the Bulls reached the red zone.

Ball State has struggled with three straight losses by double digits to Penn State, Wyoming and Toledo before beating Army, 28-16, on Saturday. The Cardinals jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and made run-dominant Army have to get back into the game through the air.

“Ball State is the defending MAC champs,” Lester said. “They were a great team and beat us last year. They have another great team this year. We have to fix the mistakes we made last year to give us a chance to beat a really good football team.”

Ball State returns senior quarterback Drew Plitt, who threw for 233 yards and two scores against Army after throwing just two TDs — both against FCS Western Illinois — with three picks entering the game.

Lester knows the Broncos also need to be aware of Justin Hall at all times. Hall returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to start Ball State’s 21-point first quarter.

Turnovers bite Eagles

Eastern Michigan (3-2, 0-1) can’t wait to get back to Rynearson Stadium for this weekend's homecoming game against Miami of Ohio (2-3, 1-0) after dropping its MAC opener at Northern Illinois, 27-20.

Simply put, EMU coach Chris Creighton knows his Eagles need to do a better job of taking care of the ball after turning it over twice, with both turnovers leading to TDs to help Northern Illinois get off to a 17-0 lead.

EMU quarterback Ben Bryant threw for 338 yards and two TDs, but he gave Northern Illinois a short field to work with after a strip-sack and had an interception returned 59 yards for a score.

“We had not lost the turnover ratio this year until this game and it was obviously very costly,” Creighton said. “I told our guys, and I mean this, we never gave up. We never broke and it feels like we ran out of time. When we started playing a little bit better offensively in the second half, we were coming back and had a chance at the very end.”

The Eagles have to face a 1-2 quarterback punch of AJ Mayer and Brett Gabbert. Mayer threw for 179 yards and two TDs and Gabbert for 171 yards and two TDs in Miami’s 28-17 win at Central Michigan on Saturday.

Miami had 514 total yards against CMU, including 164 on the ground.

Gabbert led Miami to the MAC championship in 2019, throwing for 196 yards and a TD in a 26-21 win over CMU at Ford Field.

“It’s going to start with taking care of the ball and taking the ball away, so we’re going to have great ball security and take the ball away,” Creighton said.

“Offensively, their quarterback (Gabbert) won the league (championship) as a freshman. They are playing two quarterbacks there now and they are pretty loaded at that position, and their wide receivers are as good as any in the league and that’s proven. And we know that Coach (James) Patton does a great job with the offensive line, so it will be a huge battle.”

Miami offensive line coach and run game coordinator James Patton held a similar position under Creighton at EMU in 2019 and 2020.

Chips look to get running again

The Chippewas (2-3, 0-1) will remain on the road when they play at Ohio (1-4, 1-0) this weekend.

Miami took an early 14-0 lead and made CMU one-dimensional by stopping the running game, limiting the Chips to 52 yards on the ground on 27 attempts and holding star sophomore running back Lew Nichols III to 21 yards on 12 carries.

When CMU gets its running game going, it usually results in victories. The Chippewas racked up 287 yards on the ground in a rout of Robert Morris and Nichols ran for 152 yards in a win over Florida International.

Ohio had a coaching move just prior to the start of the season when 77-year-old Frank Solich retired and offensive coordinator Tim Albin was promoted to head coach.

Albin’s head coaching career got off to a rough start with the Bobcats suffering four straight losses to Syracuse, Duquesne, Louisiana and Northwestern before opening the MAC schedule with a 34-17 win at Akron.

Akron had 398 rushing yards in the win, led by De’Montre Tuggle’s 201-yard performance.

CMU was one of the best in the nation in stopping the run until giving up the 164 yards to Miami.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com