The MAC’s midweek slate continues on Wednesday night with a battle between two-instate rivals, as Eastern Michigan travels to Mount Pleasant to take on Central Michigan. Both teams have a lot at stake in this annual rivalry. The Chippewas are 5-4 through nine games and one more win would clinch bowl eligibility and the Michigan MAC Trophy. At 2-6, the Eagles need to win out in order to keep their bowl hopes alive. And after losing to Western Michigan in overtime a few weeks ago, coach Chris Creighton’s team is hungry to avoid an 0-2 record against its in-state rivals.
Under John Bonamego’s watch, Central Michigan is 18-17 since 2015 and earned bowl trips to the Quick Lane and Miami Beach bowls. The Chippewas have up-and-down at times this year but appear to be trending up with three games left. Bonamego’s team needed overtime to beat Rhode Island in the opener but beat Kansas 45-27 in Week 2. After falling to 2-3 through the first five games, Central Michigan has rebounded to beat Ohio (the frontrunner to win the MAC East), lost 30-10 to Toledo and beat Ball State and Western Michigan.
Eastern Michigan is one of the toughest – if not the hardest – coaching jobs in college football. Since 1975, this program has just eight winning seasons. Additionally, the Eagles have played in just two bowl games. One of those bowl appearances came after the 2016 season. After going 1-11 in 2015, Creighton engineered a dramatic turnaround in Ypsilanti, finishing 7-6 overall with a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. The Eagles haven’t had the same success in 2017, but bad luck is largely to blame. Eastern Michigan has lost all six of its games by seven points or less, including three of those in overtime.
Central Michigan owns a 59-29-6 series edge over Eastern Michigan. While the Eagles won last season, the Chippewas have claimed four out of the last five. Eastern Michigan has not won in Mount Pleasant since 2011.
Eastern Michigan at Central Michigan
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Eastern Michigan -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Eastern Michigan’s Offense
Toledo’s offense leads the MAC with an average of 297.4 passing yards per game, but Eastern Michigan isn’t too far behind. Coach Chris Creighton’s group is second in the conference with an average of 276.8 a contest. Guiding this attack is senior quarterback Brogan Roback, who is making a run at all-conference honors through nine games. Roback has passed for 2,342 yards and 14 touchdowns to eight picks and connected on 60.8 percent of his passes. The senior has a deep group of receivers at his disposal, starting with Sergio Bailey (46 catches for 763 yards and six scores), Antoine Porter (38), Johnnie Niupalau (24) and Mathew Sexton (18). Eastern Michigan’s passing game has recorded at least 300 yards through the air in two out of the last three games, including 308 against a standout Northern Illinois’ secondary in late October.
While Roback is the catalyst for an offense that leans with the pass, the Eagles have a trio of options to carry the ground game. Ian Eriksen (537), Shaq Vann (279) and Breck Turner (118) pitched in to help the offense record 225 rushing yards in last week’s win over Ball State, which was the most for this team all season. The performance of the ground game last week is noteworthy, especially considering Central Michigan has struggled at times to stop the run. The Eagles average just 32 rushing attempts per game (tied for 112th nationally), but the opportunities will be there on Wednesday night to land some chunk plays.
Can Central Michigan’s secondary slow down Roback and this receiving corps? In last year’s matchup, Roback threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-21 victory for the Eagles. The Chippewas rank first in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and have held their last five opponents to less than 160 yards through the air. In addition to a standout secondary, Central Michigan’s front is expected to get end Joe Ostman (10 sacks) back from injury.
2. Central Michigan QB Shane Morris
Bonamego and new coordinator Chris Ostrowsky were faced with a tough assignment in preseason workouts. Standout quarterback Cooper Rush expired his eligibility following the Miami Beach Bowl, and there wasn’t much in the way of experience returning for spring ball. However, Bonamego landed Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris, and he’s been a perfect addition for this offense.
Morris had an uneven debut against Rhode Island but quickly rebounded by torching Kansas for 467 passing yards in Week 2. He’s passed for 2,209 yards and 18 touchdowns through nine games and was instrumental in last week’s win over Central Michigan. Morris threw for 243 yards against the Broncos, which included a 77-yard touchdown strike to Corey Willis with just over three minutes remaining to upset Central Michigan’s in-state rival in Kalamazoo.
Like Roback, Morris has a strong supporting cast to utilize in the passing game. Injuries took a toll on the receiving corps earlier this season, but tight end Tyler Conklin (17 catches) is back in the mix, and Corey Willis (28) has also returned to the lineup. In addition to Conklin and Willis, Mark Chapman (44) and Eric Cooper (20) will see plenty of targets on Wednesday night.
An x-factor for Central Michigan to watch is running back Jonathan Ward. The sophomore recorded 211 total yards and a touchdown in last week’s win over Western Michigan. Ward should see around 10-15 carries but will also work as an outlet for Morris out of the backfield.
Eastern Michigan’s secondary ranks fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just 10 passing scores this year. The Eagles are also active up front (20 sacks), which figures to test a Central Michigan offensive line that has allowed only 10 through nine games.
3. Which Defense Can Get the Most Stops or Force Turnovers?
We haven’t touched on defense much in this preview, but there’s a reason behind that. With two of the MAC’s better quarterbacks on display and skill talent across the board on both sidelines, offense is likely to rule the night in Mount Pleasant on Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean this side of the ball won’t be important to victory.
Eastern Michigan’s unit has allowed only 5.1 yards per play this season and ranks second in the MAC in scoring defense (20.3 ppg). The Eagles excel versus the pass and have limited opposing quarterbacks to just four completions of 40 or more yards. This unit has been a little more generous against the run, allowing 172.4 yards per game. But one key stat to keep in mind surrounding Eastern Michigan’s defense: This group has not allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points in a game this year.
Similar to Eastern Michigan’s defense, Central Michigan has excelled against the pass. The Chippewas are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 54 percent completion percentage and have allowed just five passes of 40 or more yards. This unit has been more vulnerable than Eastern Michigan against the ground, giving up 205.8 yards per game. Central Michigan's defense lags behind Eastern Michigan in points allowed (27.1 per game) but has been better on third downs and inside the red zone.
With this game expected to be close, a turnover or two could be the deciding factor. Central Michigan has forced the most turnovers (22) of any MAC team and enters Wednesday night’s game with a plus-three margin. Eastern Michigan has forced only 13 and has a minus-one margin.
A quick glance at the MAC’s weekly stat release shows these two teams are similar in a lot of areas. Both teams are pass-first offenses, have talented senior quarterbacks and a solid group of playmakers at their disposal, along with offensive lines that excel in pass protection. On defense, both teams have a standout secondary and a solid pass rush to get to the quarterback. Central Michigan’s penchant for winning the turnover battle and homefield advantage are two reasons to like Bonamego’s bunch on Wednesday. But Eastern Michigan is due for some better luck in a close game. Roback comes through in the clutch, and the defense makes a late stop to hold off the Chippewas. The Eagles knock off their in-state rival to keep slim bowl hopes alive for another week.
Prediction: Eastern Michigan 31, Central Michigan 30
(Brogan Roback photo courtesy of Steve King/EMUEaglesPhoto.com)