Bragging rights between two Michigan MAC rivals are on the line Tuesday night, as Central Michigan travels to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan in the regular season finale for both teams. The Chippewas and Eagles are both bowl eligible, so it’s unlikely Tuesday night’s game is the final appearance for either team in the 2016 season.
Eastern Michigan has made considerable progress under coach Chris Creighton’s watch, and a win over the Chippewas would secure the program’s first winning season since 1995. The Eagles missed an opportunity to earn their seventh win last week, losing to Northern Illinois 31-24 in overtime after opening up a 21-0 lead in the first half. Even though Creighton’s team is just under .500 in MAC play (3-4), this squad was competitive in matchups against some of the league’s top programs this year. EMU lost 45-31 against Western Michigan and fell 35-20 to Toledo in early October. The Eagles have not defeated Central Michigan since 2011, so there’s plenty of motivation on the sideline for Creighton and this program as it tries to earn its seventh victory.
Central Michigan secured postseason eligibility with a 27-20 victory over Ohio last Tuesday. The victory over the Bobcats ended a three-game losing streak for coach John Bonamego’s team and was the first win in MAC play since a 34-28 victory over Northern Illinois on Oct. 15. While the Chippewas won’t have the pressure of bowl eligibility hanging over their heads on Tuesday night, there’s still plenty at stake for Bonamego’s program. Central Michigan should be in good shape to earn a bowl bid, but a win over Eastern Michigan would improve those odds. Additionally, a victory over the Eagles would add to the program’s dominance over its in-state rival.
Central Michigan holds a 59-28-6 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The Chippewas have also won four in a row and six out of the last seven in this series.
Central Michigan at Eastern Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN3
Spread: Central Michigan -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Central Michigan QB Cooper Rush
The unquestioned leader of Central Michigan’s offense is quarterback Cooper Rush. The senior delivered a clutch performance in last week’s win over Ohio (25 of 32 for 268 yards and two scores) and enters Tuesday night’s game with 3,043 yards and 23 touchdown tosses this season. Rush is the clear focal point on an offense that struggles to get consistent play from its line and ground game. Additionally, he needs just over 500 yards (518) to break the MAC’s career passing yardage mark set by former Chippewa Dan LeFevour. It’s a safe bet the senior will have plenty of opportunities to chip away at that total on Tuesday night, as Eastern Michigan ranks seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 60.8 percent of their passes. In order for the Eagles to slow down Rush, the defense needs a big effort out of its line, which includes one of the MAC’s top linemen in senior Pat O’Connor (seven sacks).
If Rush has time to throw, an Eastern Michigan secondary that has surrendered eight passing plays of 50 yards or more is going to have trouble containing the Chippewas’ downfield attack. Corey Willis (61 catches) is the go-to receiver, but tight end Tyler Conklin (38 grabs) and receiver Mark Chapman (38 catches) are valuable targets for Rush. In last year’s game, Rush threw for 391 yards and two touchdowns. Can he repeat those numbers or will the Eastern Michigan defense find a way to slow one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks?
2. Eastern Michigan’s Passing Offense
Behind quarterback Brogan Roback and a deep group of receiving options, Eastern Michigan ranks as the MAC’s No. 2 team in passing offense. The Eagles average 290.4 yards per game through the air, with Roback connecting on seven plays of 40 yards or more through eight games. The junior isn’t going to handle 15-20 carries, but he’s a capable runner (147 yards this season) and is protected behind a solid offensive line (just 12 sacks allowed). Sergio Bailey (49 grabs) headlines a receiving corps that features six players with at least 20 catches.
How will the Chippewas counter the Eastern Michigan passing game? With a front seven that’s generated only 17 sacks, there’s a lot of pressure on the talented cornerback duo of Amari Coleman (14 pass breakups) and Josh Cox. In addition to Coleman’s 14 pass breakups, this duo has combined for six interceptions. Only one team (Virginia) has managed more than 300 passing yards against this secondary in 2016. The Chippewas are also good at taking away the big plays. Through 11 games, this defense has allowed only four passing plays of more than 40 yards. Considering the depth of weapons on the outside and Roback’s penchant to take care of the ball (only five picks on 289 attempts), this battle will be an interesting chess match on Tuesday night.
3. Ground Game and Turnovers
With Roback and Rush leading the way for their respective offenses, it’s no surprise both teams are near the bottom of the MAC in rushing yards. Eastern Michigan ranks ninth at 155.9 yards per game (4.2 ypc), while Central Michigan is last at 118.5 per contest (3.6 ypc). A struggling offensive line and an injury to running back Devon Spalding has limited the ground game at times for the Chippewas. Spalding has missed the last two games but is on track to play against the Eagles. Eastern Michigan lost promising running back Shaq Vann due to injury early in the year, but Ian Eriksen (741 yards) has been a solid replacement. However, Eriksen left last week’s game due to injury and his status is up in the air for Tuesday night. If Eriksen can’t go, Blake Banham (111 yards) or freshman Willie Parker would be the top options unless Breck Turner can return after missing two games due to injury.
In addition to which team is able to overcome injury concerns and generate production on the ground, keep a close eye on the turnover battle. Eastern Michigan is plus-one in margin in 2016, while Central Michigan is minus-three. During the Chippewas’ recent three-game losing streak, Bonamego’s team posted a negative turnover margin. In last week’s win over Ohio, Central Michigan posted a plus-three margin. Considering a close game is expected, one (or two) turnovers could decide this one.
There’s plenty at stake for both teams on Tuesday night. The in-state rivalry aspect is just one angle, but both programs are looking to secure their bowl position or improve their standing among the MAC’s eligible teams. The injuries at running back add a layer of mystery to Eastern Michigan’s offense. Even if the Eagles are shorthanded at running back, Roback is going to create his share of problems for the Central Michigan defense. The Chippewas will lean heavily on Rush’s right arm, but the return of Spalding could add some punch to the ground game. Expect a tight game, but the difference in this one will be Rush and a couple of second-half stops by the CMU defense.