MAC football: CMU finding its groove; EMU-WMU on tap this week

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Jim McElwain has reason to feel confident about his Chippewas heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. Central Michigan has won four of its last five games, with freshman running back Lew Nichols III running the ball as well as anyone in the country.

Nichols (Detroit Cass Tech) is third in the nation in rushing with 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns, including 892 yards (150 carries) and nine TDs over the last five games.

It’s highly unlikely Nichols will reach the CMU single-season rushing record set by Brian Pruitt (1,890) in 1994, but he could reach the No. 2 mark held by Silas Massey (1,544) since 1996.

Lew Nichols III is having a monster season for Central Michigan.

The Chippewas (6-4, 4-2) will play at defending MAC champion Ball State (5-5, 3-3) on Wednesday, then cap off the regular season hosting Eastern Michigan (6-4, 3-3) on Nov. 26.

“Well, we don’t like the one (loss) that was in the four of five obviously,” McElwain said of the recent five-game stretch. “I think we are playing better as a football team and I still think we can play better. Like I said from the beginning, and I mean it, I really like this team. I like this locker room. I’m looking forward to them having another opportunity to go out and compete and we’ll see how it goes.”

The Chippewas and Ball State both dropped close games to MAC West leader Northern Illinois (7-3, 5-1), with Northern Illinois defeating Ball State, 30-29, last Wednesday on a field goal as time expired, and Northern Illinois defeating CMU, 39-38, in Mount Pleasant on Oct. 23. The Chippewas had a botched snap on a potential game-winning field goal with five seconds left.

Central Michigan needs to win out and have Northern Illinois lose its final two games, Wednesday at Buffalo and Nov. 23 against Western Michigan, to win the division title and play in the MAC title game at Ford Field. The Chippewas already are bowl-eligible.

Ball State allowed 211 rushing yards in its loss to Northern Illinois, so Nichols could have another big night.

Nichols is coming off a career-high 215-yard effort in a game where he had 43 carries and four touchdowns in a 54-30 rout of then-East leading Kent State last Wednesday.

“He’s really stepped up,” McElwain said. “Obviously, the loss (knee injury suffered prior to season) of Kobe Lewis who was a 1,000-yard rusher our first year here, and how he’s really stepped up and answered the bell. He’s done a great job within the running back room and becoming a leader. He’s a guy the team knows they can trust. He’s playing at a high level, but it takes the other guys around him too and he’ll be the first guy to tell you. Our offensive line is giving him some opportunities and he’s taken advantage of it.”

Nichols’ running also has opened up the passing game with freshman quarterback Daniel Richardson making some big plays, throwing for 268 yards and four TDs without an interception in the win over Kent State.

EMU-WMU this week

Eastern Michigan had the chance to go 7-3 for the first time since it finished the 1989 season with a 7-3-1 record. But last Tuesday, it lost at home to a 2-7 Ohio team, 34-26. EMU (6-4, 3-3) gave up 495 total yards (265 rushing) and failed to force a turnover in the loss to the Bobcats.

The Eagles host Western Michigan on Tuesday, before finishing the regular season at Central Michigan.

EMU has enjoyed success against the Broncos in past years, including a 53-42 win in Kalamazoo last year to get its first victory of the 2020 COVID-shortened season after dropping the first four games. The Eagles also defeated the Broncos, 34-27, in Ypsilanti in 2019, when Preston Hutchinson found Matthew Sexton for a 34-yard TD with 36 seconds remaining to turn a 27-26 deficit into the win.

Hutchinson threw for 315 yards and three TDs without an interception in last year’s game.

Hutchinson is now in a backup role to Ben Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati, who completed 41 of 57 for 354 yards and a TD with a pick in the loss to Ohio.

Western Michigan (6-4, 3-3), meanwhile, will limp into the game, losing three of its last five games and needing a 45-yard TD pass from Kaleb Eleby to Corey Crooms with a minute left to play to pull out a 45-40 win last Tuesday over an 2-7 Akron team which had fired its coach the previous week.

Broncos sophomore running back Sean Tyler scored three TDs in the win over Akron, one rushing, one receiving and on a 96-yard kickoff return.

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david.goricki@detroitnews.com