Midweek #MACtion is back, and we have ourselves one of the conference's most intense rivalry games on Wednesday night!
The Central Michigan Chippewas (4-4) will board the buses to Kalamazoo in a clash against Tim Lester and the Western Michigan Broncos (5-3). This is a revenge game of sorts for the boys from Mount Pleasant, who fell 49-10 in an unpleasant manner to Western Michigan a year ago in an October 1 rivalry game that certainly didn't live up to the hype.
For Western Michigan, bowl eligibility is already on the line. The Broncos' haven't been the 13-1 team they were under P.J. Fleck's final year at the helm but Western Michigan has adapted nicely to life after Fleck with a unique mix of young talent and veteran playmakers from the 2016 team.
But Western Michigan will especially have to rely on young talent on Wednesday night as the Broncos will insert a brand new quarterback into the lineup after Jon Wassink went down for the year two weekends ago with a broken collarbone.
Reece Goddard will start his first career contest for the Broncos, who are inexperienced at the position as a result of the graduation of Zach Terrell and the transfer of Tom Flacco. Goddard has only thrown three passes in his brief career, completing two for 12 yards. He's been utilized more frequently in the run game, where he has earned eight carries for 17 rushing yards this season.
Goddard committed to Western Michigan in late January last year, after the arrival of Lester and Lester has shown full confidence in the young prospect. According to Patrick Nothaft of MLive.com, Lester had high praise for the true freshman this week. "He's young, he has a lot of talent, and he has great moxie when he gets the ball in his hands in the pocket," Lester said according to Nothaft.
Luckily for the young quarterback, he'll have other talented skill players on the offense to line up alongside him. The running back unit of Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin will be without LeVante Bellamy, who suffered a leg injury several weeks ago, but the two upperclassmen will carry the load in the Broncos' backfield.
Franklin has been stellar as of late with three consecutive 100-yard games including a 176-yard, three-touchdown performance in the 7OT victory over Buffalo. Bogan has only surpassed the century mark once this season but he's been effective playing second fiddle to Franklin in recent weeks. The two combine for 1,178 yards this season.
Perhaps the most impactful player on Western Michigan resides on the defense. Cornerback Darius Phillips has starred for Lester's program this season with two interceptions and seven pass deflections. He's also played an integral role on special teams, contributing two touchdowns on kickoff returns and owning the nation's second highest average at 35.2 yards per kick return. The speedster is one of the conference's top playmakers and teams must particularly focus on avoiding him on offense and tackling him on special teams.
For Central Michigan, Shane Morris will lead the Chippewas' air attack. Morris put on one of his more impressive displays of 2017 in his last outing, slinging the ball for 199 yards and four touchdowns on 76.2% completion percentage. He put away Ball State in a 56-9 pulverization on the road, solidifying himself as the Chippewas' quarterback going forward after a shaky performance against Toledo.
In the running department, Central Michigan has seen more struggle. The Chippewas rank 95th in the FBS in rushing, but Jonathan Ward put up his best performance against FBS competition last week with 97 yards and two touchdowns.
But Central Michigan has returned two of its most crucial offensive pieces from injury this year. Tight end Tyler Conklin has caught a touchdown pass in all three games since returning against Ohio, averaging 76.3 receiving yards per game. And wide receiver Corey Willis, famous for scoring the game-winner at Oklahoma State, returned to stardom with 98 receiving yards and three touchdowns during the domination in Muncie.
Defensively for Central Michigan, the team possesses the nation's sack leader in Joe Ostman. Ostman is the only player in college football to have 10 sacks to his name this season, earning four in the 56-9 win over Ball State. One key matchup to watch on Wednesday night will be Ostman paired up against Western Michigan offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, a 2016 First Team All-MAC selection.
Keys to the Game
Jarvion Franklin must lead the way. When a true freshman quarterback is making his first start midseason, the running backs must play their hearts out in order to keep the quarterback comfortable. Goddard has only thrown three passes, so before he gains confidence and expands his range through the air, Franklin must already establish the offense. Western Michigan has fielded a respectable ground game for years now and Franklin must continue to hand it to the Chippewas' defense as he did in his 132-yard, two-touchdown performance against John Bonamego's program last season. Contributions from Jamauri Bogan would also greatly help the Broncos. Central Michigan's run defense is 98th nationally, allowing 192.4 yards per game so Western Michigan's backs will be in charge of producing the offense in Kalamazoo.
Step up the defense in the red zone, Central Michigan. If the Chippewas hope to upset their bitter rival, they must look at how Akron defeated the Broncos in Kalamazoo. Akron is the only non-ranked opponent to top Western Michigan this season, and the Zips won 14-13 as a result of missed field goals and stingy red zone defense. Akron forced an interception in the red zone and stopped the Broncos on third down once, forcing a Josh Grant missed field goal. Considering Grant has been cold lately and has only connected on five of his last 10 field goal attempts, the Chippewas must do everything in their power to pressure Goddard on third downs and force Western Michigan to bring out the kicking unit instead of watching the Broncos end up in the end zone.
Time and date: Wednesday, November 1, 8 p.m. EST
Venue: Waldo Stadium — Kalamazoo, MI
Spread: Western Michigan (-4)
ESPN FPI Predictor: Western Michigan has 76.5% chance to win
All-time series: Western Michigan leads 48-38-2. The Broncos took home a 49-10 victory on the road last season and they have won five of the last six.
There is so much uncertainty with Reece Goddard making his first start. Western Michigan has won several games (Buffalo, Eastern Michigan) against six-loss teams in overtime by slim margins, and Central Michigan looks to be catching fire at the right time. I think Shane Morris gained a lot of confidence from his performance at Ball State and the Chippewas have had this game circled on the calendar since the embarrassment last season. The Broncos will have to wait to claim bowl eligibility while Central Michigan will finally find itself above .500 again.
Prediction: Central Michigan 31, Western Michigan 21