When the Broncos and Bobcats last settled it on the field, plenty was at stake.
Especially for Western Michigan, as a MAC Championship victory over Ohio would row the team to its 13th win of the season and clinch a spot in a sought-after New Year’s Six Bowl.
Trailing 23-7, Ohio nearly destroyed Western Michigan’s lofty hopes. With 1:24 remaining at Ford Field in Detroit, just 75 yards stood between a disastrous loss for P.J. Fleck’s undefeated Broncos and the Bobcats’ first conference title since 1968.
Robert Spillane’s interception at the Western Michigan 30-yard line put an end to the underdog Bobcats’ hopes. Western Michigan competed in the Cotton Bowl, despite a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin. Since that 2016 season, Ohio is the only team in the conference to claim a bowl victory after dismantling UAB 41-6 in the 2017 Bahamas Bowl.
In 2018, both of these programs are among the more successful in the conference. Ohio (5-3) and Western Michigan (6-3) are both pursuing spots in postseason bowl games behind high-flying offenses.
Ohio’s 38.3 points per game offense is headlined by junior quarterback Nathan Rourke. The Canadian continues to be the most successful dual-threat quarterback in the conference. Last season, he led all FBS quarterbacks with 21 rushing touchdowns and has produced six in 2018 with a third of the season to go. As a passer, Rourke is only getting better. His passer rating has increased from 132.9 to 161.1 over the course of his two seasons as a starter, and he is performing better in nearly every area through the air.
Western Michigan’s starting quarterback is absent. Typical starter Jon Wassink left last week’s loss to Toledo with an injury, and it was revealed by head coach Tim Lester that Wassink will undergo right foot surgery. Now unlikely to return until next fall, true freshman Kaleb Eleby enters.
Despite a 27-point loss, mainly attributable to the defense, Eleby posted a spectacular debut. Completing 23-of-28 passes, the youngster threw for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns. All that’s missing is mobility, but Western Michigan’s offensive line did him no favors there, as he took five sacks in his collegiate debut.
The running backs featured in this cross-division clash showcase plenty of seasoned veterans. Ohio running back A.J. Ouellette has played an integral role on the Bobcats’ offense since 2014, while Jamauri Bogan has been a staple in the backfield for Western Michigan since 2015. Add Broncos’ junior halfback LeVante Bellamy to the mix, and you have 13 combined seasons of experienced between the backs.
Papi White and Cameron Odom are the primary receivers for Rourke’s crew, while true freshman Jayden Reed and D’Wayne Eskridge serve as Western Michigan’s favorite pass catchers. White and Reed each lead their team with similar stat lines. White, a senior often utilized as a punt returner, has racked up 667 yards and six touchdowns in his final stands in Athens.
Meanwhile, Reed’s career is just taking off. The Broncos’ freshman caught four touchdowns in a 1-point win at Miami (OH) and continued his success with a pair of scores last week.
Although both teams enter with offensive prowess, defense is a bit of a concern. The teams each boast a handful of talented defenders, especially from the safety positions. Ohio’s Javon Hagan and Western Michigan’s Justin Tranquill are the most talented members of their respective defenses, but the rest of the units have struggled against high-powered offenses this year.
Both MAC programs allow more than 460 yards per game against FBS opponents heading into Thursday night. During an unpromising 1-2 start, Ohio allowed 37 points per game. But that ship was turned around during a fourth quarter comeback win over Kent State. In the Bobcats’ last three games (2-1), the team has prevented teams from scoring above 24 points.
For Western Michigan, a six-game winning streak was snapped last Thursday in Kalamazoo after a brilliant showing by Toledo’s offense. Allowing 51 points at home is never an easy pill to swallow, but it’s been a recurring theme for Western Michigan this season. At Waldo Stadium in the opener, the Broncos yielded 55 to Syracuse before allowing 49 to Michigan and 39 to Miami (OH) in eventual road games.
This game remains one of the most important contests in deciding who earns a trip to Detroit this November 30.
MAC Championship Implications
With a loss, Ohio is all but eliminated from the MAC race. The Bobcats are 3-1 against conference opponents, but with Buffalo sporting a perfect mark, a loss to Ohio would ensure the Bulls compete for their first MAC title since 2008. Outside of the Bobcats, Buffalo only has MAC East cellar dwellers Kent State and Bowling Green left on the schedule, so Ohio needs to pull out the road victory to stay alive in the MAC race. The Bobcats still control their own destiny, even with a difficult schedule ahead.
Like Ohio, Western Michigan controls its own destiny as well. The Broncos fell to 4-1 in MAC play after their first loss of the season to Toledo a week ago. Since Toledo already possesses two MAC losses, the Broncos can ice a trip to Detroit by, simply, winning. But with Ohio and Northern Illinois on the schedule still, the Broncos also face a difficult road ahead.
- Time and Date: Thursday, November 1 — 7:00 p.m. ET
- Venue: Waldo Stadium — Kalamazoo, MI
- Network: ESPNU
- Spread: Ohio (-3.5)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Western Michigan has 53.9% chance to win
- All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 33-28-1
The Broncos have locked up victories in each of the last four meetings, dating back to a 41-20 decision in 2008. The most recent meeting was Western Michigan’s tough-fought MAC Championship win in 2016, a feat the Bobcats still haven’t achieved since a man landed on the moon.
Frank Solich has only beaten the Broncos once, in 2006. Tim Lester will be the third different Western Michigan head coach Solich has faced in this series after faring 1-1 against Bill Cubit and 0-3 against P.J. Fleck.
The offenses will be out and about, that’s for sure.
Excluding the 24-21 loss to a stingy Northern Illinois defense, Ohio’s offense has been exceptional all season long. The Bobcats will likely benefit from Western Michigan’s struggling defense, one that has had issues with mobile quarterbacks this year.
Nathan Rourke should find comfort in the fact that Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey ran for 200 yards on 15 attempts against the Broncos. But Ohio’s defense should beware of the offensive threats that are the thunder-lightning combo of Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy, and the herd of speedy Western Michigan wideouts.
It’s hard to expect another worldly performance from Eleby, who will be making his first start Thursday. With the Broncos’ defense providing him little favors, Ohio prevails on the road and stays in the MAC title race with a 40-point offensive performance.
Prediction: Ohio 42, Western Michigan 31