Midweek MACtion in November continues on Tuesday night with an in-state rivalry battle between Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. Both teams have already reached six victories, but a win on Tuesday would certainly help the bowl prospects of one program. Also, the Michigan MAC Trophy is also still up for grabs for the Eagles, as they still have to play both in-state rivals in conference games to close out the 2021 college football season. With a win over Western Michigan on Tuesday, along with a victory against Central Michigan on Nov. 26, Eastern Michigan would claim the trophy for the first time since '12.
Eastern Michigan is in good position to earn the program's fourth bowl appearance in six years under coach Chris Creighton, but the team also has bigger goals in play. If the Eagles win their last two games — Western Michigan and at Central Michigan — they would finish the regular season at 8-4 to tie the second-highest win total in school history. Creighton's squad stumbled against Ohio (34-26) last Tuesday, dropping EMU to 3-3 in MAC play this fall. The Eagles previously knocked off Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, and Toledo, while losing to Northern Illinois and Ball State by one score.
Western Michigan ended a two-game losing streak with a 45-40 win over Akron last Tuesday. The Broncos fell out of contention for the MAC West title after losses to Ball State, Toledo, and Central Michigan in conference action, but coach Tim Lester's team picked up good wins over Pitt and San Jose State in non-conference play. If Western Michigan can win its last two games, finishing 8-4 would represent the best finish under Lester's direction.
Western Michigan holds a 34-20-2 series edge over Eastern Michigan. But the Eagles have won two in a row over the Broncos, including a 53-42 game in Kalamazoo last year. Three of the last four matchups have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Western Michigan at Eastern Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -5.5
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Western Michigan's offense isn't matching last year's high-powered totals (7.34 yards per play and 41.7 points a game), but this unit is still one of the better groups in the MAC, averaging 33 points and 6.3 yards per play in conference action. Turnovers have been a problem in losses, as the Broncos sport a minus-nine margin in the team's four defeats this year. Another issue for Lester's group has been the lack of big plays. After connecting on 14 of 40-plus yards in just six games last fall, Western Michigan has just seven in '21.
Quarterback Kaleb Eleby is the catalyst for Lester's attack, and the sophomore is putting the finishing touches on a potential all-conference season in his first full year as the starter. The Missouri native has passed for 2,471 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four picks and added four more scores on the ground. Eleby doesn't lack for weapons to throw to, as the Broncos have one of the best receiving corps in the MAC. Skyy Moore (68 catches), Jaylen Hall (38), and Corey Crooms (38) are the go-to weapons on the outside, and that trio is going to be a tough matchup against an Eastern Michigan secondary ranked second in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Although the Eagles rank high in the conference, Ohio averaged 23 yards per completion last week, and Toledo threw for 438 yards on Nov. 2.
Although Western Michigan can take to the air with Eleby and the talented trio of receivers, the ground game should see plenty of attention on Tuesday night. Eastern Michigan is giving up 195.7 rushing yards in MAC games, and the last two opponents managed to record at least six yards per carry. Sean Tyler (837 yards), La'Darius Jefferson (680), and Jaxson Kincaide (297) will all see time versus the Eagles. Tyler has been more productive (6.1 per carry), while Jefferson has 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Considering the firepower on Western Michigan's offense, timely stops are crucial for Creighton's team on Tuesday night. The Eagles are allowing 6.13 yards per play and 30.7 points a game in MAC contests. Also, this unit has struggled to get stops on third down and inside the red zone, while generating just nine sacks in league action. In Western Michigan's three conference losses, the offense turned the ball over nine times. It's imperative for Eastern Michigan to find a couple of takeaways on Tuesday night.
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
Good things happen for the Eagles when the offense takes flight behind the right arm of quarterback Ben Bryant. The Cincinnati transfer directs a passing attack that ranks second in the MAC in per-game production (276.7 yards per contest) and has accumulated at least 300 yards in four consecutive games. Bryant has passed for 2,544 yards and 14 touchdowns to six picks and connected on nearly 70 percent (69.7) of his throws this year. The senior also ranks second among MAC signal-callers in quarterback rating (148.7).
Western Michigan enters Tuesday night's matchup ranked eighth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered 21 touchdowns this year. That matchup should be favorable to Bryant, and the Eagles have several weapons capable of stretching this defense. Hassan Beydoun (73 catches) is Bryant's favorite target, but Dylan Drummond (52), Zach Westmoreland (16), Thomas Odukoya (11), and Tanner Knue (17) will be heavily involved. The Broncos have generated 32 sacks this year, and lineman Ali Fayad (8.5 sacks), Ralph Holley (5.5), and Marshawn Kneeland (3.5) could be key here to get pressure on Bryant to prevent him from attacking the secondary downfield.
Eastern Michigan ranks near the bottom of the MAC (league-only games) in rushing attempts (30.7 a game) and last in production (82.2 yards per contest). While there's little doubt this is Bryant's offense, running backs Jawon Hamilton (435 yards), Darius Boone (377), and Samson Evans (11 TDs) are crucial weapons to provide a change-of-pace from the aerial attack. However, Western Michigan ranks second in the MAC in rush defense, with only one opponent (Michigan) topping over 192 yards against this unit.
Western Michigan has allowed at least 30 points in five of its six MAC games, so Eastern Michigan should be able to find success moving the ball and putting points on the scoreboard. However, while the Broncos give up 5.9 yards per play in conference action, they lead the MAC in third-down defense. Western Michigan will bend a little on Tuesday night, but a few timely stops might be all that's needed for one team to come out on top on the scoreboard.
In addition to in-state bragging rights and bowl positioning, Tuesday night's meeting between Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan should provide plenty of quality MACtion. These two teams have the firepower to put up points in a hurry, and Eleby and Bryant rank near the top of the conference in terms of quarterback performance this season. The Broncos are likely to struggle to contain Bryant, but the Eagles are also going to have their hands full trying to slow down WMU's balanced attack and big-play potential. The recent trend favors Eastern Michigan, but the guess here is Western Michigan wins a close one on Tuesday night.
Prediction: Western Michigan 38, Eastern Michigan 34
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