Western Michigan hits the road for the final time in the regular season, as coach P.J. Fleck’s Broncos travel to Ohio to take on Kent State. Western Michigan was the top Group of 5 program in the first College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, and this team is likely four wins away from a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. The Broncos could face competition for that spot, which is why Tuesday night’s game is a critical opportunity to make a statement.
Western Michigan opened its midweek November MACtion with a convincing 52-20 win over Ball State last Tuesday. Quarterback Zach Terrell was sharp against the Cardinals, throwing for 367 yards and three scores on 23 completions. As expected, Terrell’s main target was Corey Davis, who set a new MAC single-game record against Ball State with 272 yards on 12 catches. Western Michigan has scored at least 41 points in six consecutive games and has averaged at least 6.4 yards per play in eight out of nine contests in 2016.
Kent State (3-6) enters Tuesday night looking to play spoiler and improve the outlook on coach Paul Haynes’ future with the program. The Golden Flashes are just 12-32 under Haynes’ watch, but the former Kent State defensive back hasn’t let his team collapse despite some key injuries at quarterback this year. Instead, the Golden Flashes are coming off an upset win against Central Michigan (27-24) and three conference losses came by four points. The decision to move Nick Holley from running back to quarterback has provided a spark for the offense, while the defense ranks fifth in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game.
Western Michigan holds a 33-19-1 series edge over Kent State. These two teams have met only twice since 2011, with the Golden Flashes riding a two-game winning streak over the Broncos. Western Michigan’s last win in Kent came in 2000.
Western Michigan at Kent State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Western Michigan -18
Three Things to Watch
1. WMU QB Zach Terrell to WR Corey Davis
Western Michigan’s connection between quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis is among the best in the nation. Terrell has been incredibly efficient, completing 71.6 percent of his throws and tossing only one pick on 243 attempts. The senior has passed for 2,362 yards and 23 scores on 174 completions this year. Davis been the recipient on 61 of Terrell’s completions, with the senior recording 1,011 yards (16.6 ypc) and 14 scores. In last week’s win over Ball State, Davis set a new MAC single-game record with 272 receiving yards. Will this duo continue its torrid pace on Tuesday night? Kent State’s secondary ranks as the best in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, limiting opposing quarterbacks to just a 51.9 completion percentage and no team has managed more than 260 passing yards against this secondary. That’s an impressive feat for Haynes’ defense with matchups so far against Penn State, Alabama and Central Michigan. Cornerbacks Najee Murray (12 PBU) and Demetrius Monday are the anchors on the outside and will be counted on even more after standout safety Nate Holley was suspended on Monday. Can Terrell connect on a few big plays to Davis? Or will Western Michigan’s passing game struggle to get on track against a standout Kent State secondary?
Kent State’s defense is also solid against the run (3.9 ypc and 145.9 ypg), which could limit the running room for running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan. Franklin leads the team with 1,018 yards, while Bogan (589) has been slowed due to injuries recently and has only 16 carries over Western Michigan’s last three games.
Western Michigan has a ton of firepower on offense. Will Kent State’s defense have any answers?
2. Kent State QB Nate Holley
Kent State coordinator Don Treadwell was forced to get creative on offense after injuries sidelined quarterbacks Mylik Mitchell and Justin Agner for the 2016 season. Following Mitchell’s season-ending ailment against Alabama, Holley was shifted from running back to quarterback. The junior has recorded at least 246 total yards in four out of his five starts under center, including 402 against Akron and 313 against Buffalo. Holley is limited as a passer (51.9%) and has connected on just three throws of 40 yards or more. However, Holley is a dangerous runner and his ability to handle 25-30 carries is huge for an offense that needs to control the time of possession. While the time of possession stat is rarely considered important, Kent State has to shorten the game and keep Western Michigan’s offense on the sideline. The Broncos surrendered 298 rushing yards (a season high) against Ball State last Tuesday. For Kent State to have a shot at the upset, Holley – with an assist from running back Justin Rankin – needs to have another huge performance on the ground. Expect Western Michigan to counter with a loaded box to force Holley to take to the air.
3. Turnover Margin
Considering the advantage Western Michigan has in playmakers on offense, Kent State is going to need a couple of takeaways to close the gap. However, the Broncos have a tight grip on the ball, losing only three turnovers all season and boasting a plus-15 margin going into Tuesday night’s matchup. The Golden Flashes aren’t too far behind on the stat sheet, ranking No. 3 in the MAC with a plus-seven margin. If Kent State can force a few turnovers and keep Western Michigan’s offense on the sideline, then Haynes’ team will have an opportunity to keep this one close in the second half. However, if the Golden Flashes have a couple of giveaways and finish minus-two or minus-three in turnover margin, this one could get ugly in a hurry.
Kent State needs a lot to go its way to knock off Western Michigan. The Golden Flashes have to control the clock on offense, with Holley handling 25-30 carries and doing enough through the air to keep the Broncos off balance. If Holley has a huge performance, and the defense slows down Terrell to Davis and the ground game, Kent State will have a chance to keep this closer than the spread indicates. However, that’s a difficult path for the Golden Flashes to try and successfully navigate. Barring a complete collapse by Western Michigan and a couple of turnovers, the Broncos should pull away in the second half to move to 10-0 and one step closer to a New Year’s Six Bowl.