Midweek MACtion returns on Wednesday night with a critical game for positioning in the West Division between rivals Western Michigan and Central Michigan. Both teams enter this matchup with a 2-0 mark, and with the abbreviated schedule for 2020, every game in a tight West Division battle is critical. Additionally, some hardware will be on the line on Wednesday night. Starting in 2008, the winner of this rivalry game is awarded the Cannon Trophy, and the Broncos will be looking to keep it Kalamazoo for the third year in a row.
Western Michigan provided plenty of MACtion fireworks in last week's win over Toledo. The Broncos trailed 38-28 with three minutes to go but rallied to win a 41-38 thriller, which included a touchdown toss by quarterback Kaleb Eleby on a fake spike play with less than 20 seconds left. The Rockets were projected by some to finish near the top of the MAC West, so a head-to-head victory against one of the top teams in the division was a big deal for coach Tim Lester's squad. That victory came one week after Western Michigan pounded Akron 58-13 in the season opener. After Wednesday night's game, the Broncos play two out of their final three at home but catch Ball State on the road on Dec. 12.
Central Michigan was a surprise winner of the MAC's West Division last season, but coach Jim McElwain's program is on track to push for a repeat in 2020. The Chippewas won their opener 30-27 over Ohio and easily defeated Northern Illinois (40-10) last Tuesday. Regardless of what happens on Wednesday night, Central Michigan still has obstacles to clear in matchups at Eastern Michigan and a road trip to Toledo on Dec. 12.
Western Michigan holds a 50-38-2 series edge over Central Michigan. The Broncos have won five out of the last six over the Chippewas. Only two of the matchups in that span were decided by seven points or less.
Western Michigan at Central Michigan
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Central Michigan -1.5
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
The MAC's top offense meets the No. 1 statistical defense. Something has to give here. Western Michigan enters Wednesday night's contest ranked No. 1 in the MAC in scoring (49.5 per game) and yards per play (8.01). Coach Tim Lester calls the plays for a group capable of hurting defenses via the air or on the ground. However, the Broncos are likely to face more resistance than they have through the first two games. Akron and Toledo finished near the bottom of the conference in scoring defense last season, while Central Michigan leads the MAC in fewest points allowed through two games.
Quarterback Kaleb Eleby is technically a first-year starter, but he's no stranger to playing time. After a five-game stint as the starter in 2018, Eleby redshirted behind Jon Wassink last fall. Eleby showcased a lot of potential two years ago, and is on track to realize that ability in 2020. The sophomore is completing 71.1 percent of his throws for 546 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Additionally, he leads all MAC quarterbacks with six completions of 30 yards or more and has two rushing touchdowns. Shifting D'Wayne Eskridge back to receiver on a full-time basis has paid big dividends for the Broncos. He's been the go-to target for Eleby (10 catches for 245 yards and three scores), with Skyy Moore (six) and Jaylen Hall (29.7 ypc on three grabs) rounding out a dangerous trio.
Eleby is protected by an offensive line that features four senior starters and ranks as one of the best in the MAC. The Broncos have allowed just two sacks through the first two games and rushers are averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Lester's offense doesn't have a go-to back like it did in previous years, as Sean Tyler (168 yards), La’Darius Jefferson (104), and Jaxson Kincaide (63) will all see time on Wednesday night. Kincaide and Jefferson were banged up in the win over Toledo but are expected to go versus Central Michigan.
Central Michigan's defense suffered a setback in the secondary this offseason with the departure of a couple of key players at cornerback, and end LaQuan Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Ohio. Despite those losses, the Chippewas are holding teams to 4.7 yards per snap and 18.5 points a game. McElwain's defense also ranks near the top of the MAC in turnovers forced (four), tackles for a loss (13), and third-down stops. This unit has surrendered one play of more than 40 yards and allowed just 405 yards through the air in two contests. However, that number will be tested by Western Michigan's offense, which is more of a threat through the air than Ohio or Northern Illinois.
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
There's no doubt Western Michigan comes into this game with the better offense through two weeks, but Central Michigan has been effective on this side of the ball too. The Chippewas are averaging 5.7 yards a snap and 35 points a game. Balance is the name of the game through two contests. McElwain's group averages 210.5 yards a game on the ground, with 219.5 coming via the air.
With David Moore's status still uncertain as a result of an NCAA suspension, Daniel Richardson got the nod as the starting quarterback for the first two games. The Miami native has been steady and productive so far, completing 60 percent of his throws for 439 yards and three touchdowns to just one pick. Richardson ranks second among MAC quarterbacks with three completions of 40 yards or more, but there's potential for even more big plays thanks to a strong receiving corps. Dallas Dixon averages 18.8 yards per reception over six catches, with Kalil Pimpleton (nine), JaCorey Sullivan (five), and Tyrone Scott (four) rounding out the top contributors.
While there's plenty of firepower in Central Michigan's passing game, the unquestioned strength of this offense rests on the ground. The Chippewas boasted two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis last fall, and have the makings of another effective one-two punch now. Lewis has moved into the No. 1 role with Ward gone, with Lew Nichols III taking over as the No. 2. These two players have combined for 293 yards through the first two matchups and will be looking to improve upon Central Michigan's rushing total from last year’s meeting (107).
After giving up just 256 total yards to Akron in the opener, Western Michigan's defense had its hands full against Toledo (501) last Tuesday. This unit has made some progress under coordinator Lou Esposito's watch but has struggled to get off the field on third downs and has been a little vulnerable to big plays in 2020. Tackling machine Treshaun Heyward will be crucial to slowing down the run, and the Broncos hope lineman Andre Carter is ready to go after missing last week's game due to injury. However, fellow end Ali Fayad (two sacks) was hurt against Toledo and may not return for this showdown. So far this year, Western Michigan has held up well against the run (second in the MAC), but that will be put to the test again on Wednesday night.
This is a hard game to get a read on, but the outcome is likely to hinge on which side wins the battle between strength versus strength (Central Michigan's defense against Western Michigan's offense). The best bet for Lester's team is to jump on the Chippewas early with Eleby and his receivers, forcing Central Michigan to play from behind and not rely as much on Lewis and Nichols III to lead the offense. And when the Chippewas have the ball, Richardson has to continue his mistake-free play, while also connecting on a couple of big plays downfield. This matchup could go either way, and with the rivalry aspect in consideration, don't be surprised if this is another Wednesday night MACtion thriller. Home-field advantage doesn't mean much in 2020, but the guess here is Central Michigan has a slight edge playing at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, while the defense makes just enough stops in the fourth quarter to pull out a close victory.
Prediction: Central Michigan 31, Western Michigan 30
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions