The Ohio Bobcats will head north on Thursday night to take on the Western Michigan Broncos in a key MAC battle. Both teams currently sit in second place in their respective divisions, and they each need to avoid a second conference loss if they want to keep any hope of playing in the MAC Championship Game alive.
Ohio (5-3, 3-1 MAC) enters the game on the back of consecutive wins over Bowling Green and Ball State. The Bobcats scored a total of 101 points in those two games, allowing only 14 to their opponents in each contest. Another victory also would make Ohio bowl eligible for the fourth straight season and ninth overall in head coach Frank Solich's 14-year tenure.
Western Michigan (6-3, 4-1) is coming off of its first conference loss of the season after starting the MAC slate 4-0. They had been on a six-game winning streak before the blowout loss to Toledo last week. Freshman Kaleb Eleby will get his first start at quarterback for the Broncos. Eleby made his first appearance of the season last week against Toledo after starter Jon Wassink injured his ankle early in the first quarter. Head coach Tim Lester confirmed on Monday that Wassink, a junior, will miss the rest of the season.
Ohio at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.
Spread: Ohio -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Eleby makes his first start for the Broncos
While losing quarterback Jon Wassink, who is third in the MAC in both passing (221.6 ypg) and touchdown passes (16), will be tough to overcome, Western Michigan doesn't appear to be totally sunk at the quarterback position. Eleby, a true freshman from Maryland Heights, Missouri, made his first appearance last week against Toledo and played well. He completed 23 of his 28 attempts against the Rockets for 293 yards and two touchdowns.
The real issue for the Broncos, at least on offense, against Toledo was pass protection. Eleby was sacked five times. Prior to that Western Michigan had given up just four sacks in the first eight games. Wassink's mobility (162 rushing yards, six TDs) probably helped with the sack totals so Eleby will have to do his part to rid of the ball quickly, but the line will have to its job too. Possessions will be invaluable against an offense like Ohio, and sustaining drives without setbacks and huge yardage losses via sacks will be crucial if the Broncos want to come out victorious. The Bobcats rank near the bottom of the conference in sacks (15 in eight games), so hopefully the protection will hold up to give the freshman plenty of time to find an open receiver.
2. How does Western Michigan slow down Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke?
The Bobcats' signal-caller has accounted for eight touchdowns over the last two weeks -- five passing and three rushing. Ideally, Western Michigan needs to keep him in the pocket, as he is more dangerous when scrambling. If he is able to consistently break contain and find gaps on the line to take off and run, it's going to be a long night for the Bronco defense. This is a case where pressuring the quarterback may actually be detrimental to winning. However, Western Michigan also has had its issues against the pass, including giving up a MAC-high 19 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. Last week's loss to Toledo saw two Rocket quarterbacks combine for 247 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
3. The turnover battle
As mentioned, possessions will be key in what should be a high-scoring contest. Ohio is known to capitalize off of turnovers, but their quarterback's playing style increases the risk of the Bobcat offense turning the ball over as well. Western Michigan needs to steal a possession early and give their young quarterback a lead if the Broncos want to have any chance of dictating the tempo. This game is all about momentum, and one miscue by either team could change the tide permanently. Both teams enter this game on the right side of the turnover margin. Western Michigan is tied for fourth in the MAC at plus-four with Ohio right behind at plus-three.
Everything seems to be click for Frank Solich's Bobcats right now. They are playing their best football when it matters and have all of their playmakers healthy. On the other side of the field, the Broncos need to find a balance between simplifying the game plan for their young quarterback while not sacrificing the normal explosiveness of the offense. In the end, Bobcat running back Maleek Irons is likely the difference. He's a big, bruising back that Ohio can lean on for those tough yards needed to move the chains and close out games. He's also averaging 7.8 yards per carry over his last two games. Look for a back and forth tilt to slowly turn into a sound Ohio win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Ohio 45, Western Michigan 24
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of @OhioFootball)