Western Michigan tests its spotless record against the Ohio Bobcats on Friday night at Ford Field in a clash for the Mid-American Conference Championship.
On opposing divisions of the conference, the two teams have yet to battle on the field in 2016. The potential conference champions last met a season ago, concluding in a lopsided 49-14 Bronco victory in Athens, OH.
Something to watch for heading into the championship game will be how WMU and Ohio fared against common cross-divisional opponents. Both teams held court with six common opponents in conference play:
Western Michigan 41, Akron 0
Ohio 9, Akron 3
Both teams held their own on defense against the Zips.
Akron had one of the most significant declines in 2016, dropping five of six games after a promising 5-2 start. The Broncos stampeded on the Zips in Akron, holding them scoreless in a 41-0 victory (eighth largest FBS-FBS shutout victory of the season). Akron’s defense failed to respond to Jarvion Franklin’s authoritative 281-yard performance on the ground.
Ohio faced Akron at home, also refusing to yield a touchdown to the Zips’ offense. But unlike the Broncos, the Bobcats failed to light up the scoreboard, relying on the (reliable) Louie Zervos for all nine of the game-clinching points.
To put the performance in a bit of perspective, the Bobcats’ total yardage (291) barely surpassed Franklin’s incredible rushing output.
But the defenses performed equally well — the Bobcats actually allowed fewer yardage to Akron, but only won the game by one-possession.
Western Michigan 38, Buffalo 0
Ohio 34, Buffalo 10
Western Michigan enjoyed the College GameDay atmosphere before challenging the two-win Bulls in the snow.
Once again, the Broncos’ defense was flawless, allowing zero points and creating additional offensive opportunities in the shutout victory. Both teams turned the ball over once, but the Broncos’ effective third down defense prevented the Bulls’ offense from gaining momentum. It was Western Michigan’s strongest passing game of the year, backed by Zach Terrell’s 445-yard, four-touchdown performance. Corey Davis burned a hopeless Buffalo secondary all afternoon, achieving 173 receiving yards.
Ohio effortlessly defeated the Bulls as well — its most definitive victory of the season. The Bobcats were able to synchronize the offense early, building a 27-10 lead before halftime. It was Quinton Maxwell’s best performance at quarterback in his short tenure as the starter. Maxwell threw for a career-high 221 yards and two scores, also rushing for 50 yards and another touchdown. The defense handled the Bulls’ running game better than the Broncos, but allowed Buffalo to convert on 13 third downs.
Central Michigan Chippewas
Western Michigan 49, Central Michigan 10
Central Michigan 27, Ohio 20
Western Michigan walked into Mt. Pleasant at a very opportune time, facing their rival Central Michigan just one week from a stunning loss to Virginia.
The Broncos hammered Central Michigan by 39 points, shifting the national focus in the MAC away from Mt. Pleasant and toward Kalamazoo. Franklin stepped in as the primary ball carrier after a Jamauri Bogan injury, running for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the victory. The Chippewas failed to create offensive momentum, especially given the pressure provided by Western Michigan. Cooper Rush was sacked eight times and turned the ball over twice in the loss.
Ohio traveled to Mt. Pleasant for Tuesday night #MACtion with the 5-5 Chippewas desperately trying to hold on to bowl-eligibility. The Bobcats fell behind quickly to the Chippewa, giving CMU early 17-0 lead, but would rally to tie the game at 20 before Tyler Conklin’s ridiculous one-handed game-winning catch. Maxwell’s turnovers in the final minutes prevented Ohio from tying the game once more, handing the Bobcats’ their most recent loss in 2016.
The Bobcat offense turned the ball over on four occasions, while the team’s defense could not provide its usual pressure, resulting in one sack on Rush.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Western Michigan 45, Eastern Michigan 31
Eastern Michigan 27, Ohio 20
Both MAC Championship participants discovered that this is not the same Eastern Michigan team of yesteryear.
Chris Creighton’s program tightly contested Western Michigan in the first half in late-October. The Eagles led 17-14 late in the second quarter, forcing two rare Bronco turnovers to gain a slight advantage. Western Michigan regrouped in the second half, thanks to a 398-yard, three-touchdown day by Terrell. The Broncos extended the lead to as much as 21 points, but the defense had seen better days than the matchup against the Eagles.
Ohio learned the hard way that the Eagles were for real. The Bobcats fell 27-20 in their home stadium. Pressure on Eagles’ quarterback Brogan Roback was scarce, causing the junior to become comfortable in the pocket and dominate through the air. Ohio’s run defense was quality, but the secondary struggled to cover Roback’s targets, resulting in one of two MAC losses for the Bobcats.
Kent State Golden Flashes
Western Michigan 37, Kent State 21
Ohio 14, Kent State 10
Kent State is 3-9, but the Golden Flashes found a way to play rough with both divisional champions before ultimately giving the game away.
Western Michigan faced Kent State in Ohio on a night with unfavorable conditions. Terrell’s passing was not effective, so P.J. Fleck turned to Franklin and Fabian Johnson to establish the offense through the run (329 team rushing yards). It worked, and Western Michigan was able to overcome a 14-0 deficit and take charge by the fourth quarter. With a tie game, a crucial safety forced by Robert Spillane shifted the momentum to the undefeated Broncos, who claimed a 16-point victory despite facing constant adversity.
Weeks before, Ohio visited Kent in a low-scoring, defensive slugfest. The Bobcats limited Kent State to only 264 total yards and controlled the game through a consistent rushing attack. However, Frank Solich’s team turned the ball over three times, preventing the offense from navigating down the field. Tarell Basham starred in halting the Golden Flashes’ offense, recording nine tackles and a sack from the defensive end position. Offensively, Dorian Brown and Maleek Irons carried the workload, scoring both touchdowns in the 14-10 victory.
Western Michigan 55, Toledo 35
Ohio 31, Toledo 26
Western Michigan required a victory over Toledo to earn a spot in Detroit on Friday. The Broncos did not slide past the Rockets until the late first half, when the defense finally prevented Kareem Hunt and Jason Candle’s offense from advancing down the field. The Broncos exchanged a Rocket turnover-on-downs for seven points of their own. But Fleck’s squad built a convincing second half lead when forcing a slew of Toledo turnovers. The Rockets turned the ball over three times, setting up Terrell’s offense for success. Terrell passed for three touchdowns, but Bogan was the offense’s centerpiece in the victory, achieving a season-high 198 rushing yards.
One could say that Ohio’s upset road victory against the Rockets was the turning point of the season. Up to that point in the season, Ohio failed to defeat a single team with a winning record in 2016.
Dorian Brown led the way for Ohio against Toledo’s porous rushing defense. The junior halfback scampered for 212 yards and a touchdown in the five-point victory. On the opposite side of the ball, Toledo failed to establish its usually-reliable run game. Hunt and Terry Swanson were both limited below 60 yards. Quentin Poling, the junior inside linebacker, led the defense with 11 tackles. His unit forced two turnovers and prevented a late-Toledo comeback when the Rockets reached Ohio territory on the final possession.
Western Michigan fared 6-0 against common opponents; Ohio’s result was 4-2 with losses to the other two directional Michigan schools. While both defenses shared similar performances in each game, it was the Broncos’ offense that draws a distinction between the teams’ results. Western Michigan passed the 35-point mark against all six teams; Ohio failed to top that number once.
Western Michigan owns the MAC Offensive Player of the Year in wide receiver Corey Davis. Conversely, Ohio lines up the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Tarell Basham. At 44.8 points per game, Western Michigan holds the highest scoring average in the conference and third-highest in the nation. Ohio gives up only 21.7 points per game — the second-best mark in the MAC, behind the dominant Broncos. Given Western Michigan’s strength on offense and Ohio’s impressive defense, there are bound to be intriguing matchups at Ford Field.
Chukwuma Okorafor vs. Tarell Basham
Perhaps the most interesting matchup in the game will occur in the trenches between two of the conference’ most interesting NFL-caliber prospects.
Okorafor, selected to First-Team All-MAC, has been sturdy as the Broncos’ left tackle all season long. His offensive line leads a Western Michigan offense that averages a conference-high 246.4 rushing yards per game and 35 rushing touchdowns (seventh in FBS). Thanks to Okorafor, Terrell is not accustomed to the blind-siding hit, a nightmare for all quarterbacks. Western Michigan has turned the ball over just five times in 2016 and Terrell has only been sacked on 12 occasions (down from 31 in 2015). Okorafor’s protection has been key to Western Michigan’s dominant offense this season but he may face his toughest challenge yet.
Basham leads Ohio’s sturdy 4-3 defensive unit. The pass rusher owns 10 sacks on the season (10th in the FBS and first in the MAC), along with 44 tackles and a forced fumble. Basham has sacked the most quarterbacks of any player to put on an Ohio uniform. His combination of strength and speed allows him to quickly jump snaps and swarm behind opposing tackles. As a result of Basham’s success, Ohio ranks seventh nationally with 40 sacks on the season.
Jamauri Bogan/Jarvion Franklin vs. Quentin Poling/Blair Brown
How effective can Western Michigan’s reliable running game be against a stout linebacking corps? Franklin and Bogan have been quite the one-two punch in the Broncos’ backfield this season. The junior (Franklin) and sophomore (Bogan) combine their efforts for 2,053 yards on the season. The Broncos have played a 100-yard rusher in all but one game this season.
Franklin notably bursted for 281 yards against Akron, while Bogan zipped past the Toledo defense for 198 yards. The two have been known to create points for Western Michigan with 20 combined touchdowns. Both running backs are finally healthy, so Bogan’s quickness and Franklin’s strength will provide versatility in Western Michigan’s running game.
Poling and Brown are the two other Ohio defenders to join Basham on the conference’s First-Team defense. The physical linebackers (Poling on the inside, Blair on the outside) have been crucial in limiting opponents’ running backs. The Bobcats are fifth in the nation in halting the run, averaging 105.1 yards allowed on the ground per outing. Ohio is also one of 10 teams in college football to allow fewer than 10 rushing touchdowns, a stat that should be credited to the Poling-Brown duo.
Poling has recorded 94 tackles on the season, along with four sacks and two forced fumbles. Blair has been an additional force, registering 105 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. Ohio notably limited Kareem Hunt of Toledo, one of the premier running backs in the conference’s history. Bogan and Franklin will be tough to curb, but a defense with two star linebackers may live up to the challenge.
Sebastian Smith vs. Darius Phillips
Smith is one of the veteran members of this Ohio team. The senior is a reliable deep threat for Solich’s offense, averaging 16.5 yards per reception this season. Smith has only scored four touchdowns this year, but leads the Bobcats in receiving yards with 825. The speedster earned 71 yards and a touchdown when facing Western Michigan in 2015. His quickness and ability to create space down the field create red flags for opposing defenses.
Luckily for Western Michigan, the Broncos have a solution who can match Smith’s agility and speed. When Phillips is not covering opposing wideouts, he is utilizing his speed on kickoff and punt returns, where he has created two touchdowns and plenty of yardage this season. Phillips also owns three pick-sixes and leads college football in interception return yardage. He can stop receivers in their tracks as well, as demonstrated by his 12 tackle performance at Illinois in week three. The junior first-team All-MAC selection will likely cover Smith, but Ohio’s passing offense has struggled since its opening game against Texas State.
Bonus: P.J. Fleck vs. Frank Solich
When Fleck was born, Solich already held a spot on Nebraska’s coaching staff. The two coaches are on opposite sides of the age spectrum, but are two of the most quality coaches outside of the Power Five. Both proved effective in turning around long droughts for the program. Fleck ushered in his program’s inaugural bowl win last season, while Solich accomplished the same feat with his program in 2011.
Both coaches are competing for their first MAC Championship. Solich, in his 12th year on the Bobcat sidelines, failed to leave the conference title game with a victory in his first three tries. Fleck, in his fourth year, has yet to earn the opportunity.
One stark difference between the coaches is that Solich lived in the national spotlight years ago. He coached a former powerhouse in the Nebraska Cornhuskers (1998-03) but was ousted after six seasons. His records: 9-4, 12-1, 10-2, 11-2, 7-7, and 9-3. He is tied with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy for the fourth-longest tenured coach in college football — the longest of any Group of Five school.
P.J. Fleck is a young coach who brought culture and wins to a program, almost instantly. He will be targeted by several programs this offseason, ones that can offer more money than Western Michigan. Following this dream season for the Broncos, Fleck must decide if he is willing to test Solich’s route with high expectations at a large program or if he wants to keep rowing the boat in Kalamazoo.