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Five takeaways from Western Michigan’s unthinkable 41-38 comeback win over Toledo

Western Michigan mastered the best goal line play in football. The onside kick is back. And the fake spike — still awesome.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Western Michigan at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The fake spike absolutely rules

Tim Lester nailed that call.

It’s one of those plays in football that a defense never really expects to occur, but Toledo took the unawareness factor to an entirely different level. The Rockets fully committed to lining up, waiting for the spike, and regrouping for 2nd and 10.

Western Michigan wide receiver Jaylen Hall is far beyond the right hash when the previous play ends. He jogs to the left side, signals a fake spike gesture to Eleby, and lines up in his own area code far out to the left. As soon as the whistle blows to resume the clock, Eleby spikes it and lobs it, knowing nobody is within a 10-yard radius of his receiver.

Even if Toledo is lined up, the fake spike is perfect because wide receivers can often get an early step on opposing cornerbacks. But the Rockets made this one especially easy for Western Michigan, and the Broncos executed with a game-winning touchdown.

I’m surprised we don’t see the fake spike more often. The last notable fake spike run in college football resulted in Josh Rosen’s game-winning touchdown pass in UCLA’s 45-44 comeback win over Texas A&M in 2017.

College kickers finally perfected the onside kick

Onside kicks became a major topic of discussion in the world of football when the recovery rate dropped to 6 percent in the NFL in 2018. But kickers at the collegiate and professional levels got creative and saved the onside kick from going instinct, and now, recoveries are becoming more common.

What has changed? There’s a new strategy that involves kicking the ball directly forward, barely 10 yards, and breaking into an all-out sprint so that only one member of the receiving team has the opportunity to recover. It puts the front player on the receiving team in a high pressure situation — an uncomfortable feeling of urgency to pounce on the ball while the entire kicking unit is charging at him full speed. If the receiving team coughs it up, that ball instantly becomes fair game, and at that point, the kicking team is usually in closest proximity. Akron opened the MAC season with this strategy, although its recovery was called back due to a penalty.

Western Michigan executed its onside kick perfectly. Kickoff specialist Nick Mihalic made an instant recovery after initial contact from Toledo.

Since we’re on the subject of onside kicks, why didn’t Toledo attempt one here? Seriously? For background information, Western Michigan was assessed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, one on a Toledo touchdown and another on the extra point. The Rockets kicked off from the Western Michigan 35-yard line, and booted it out of the end zone for a net 10-yard kick. For onside kicks, the ball has to travel 10 yards anyway. It was an extraordinarily rare circumstance, but there was no reason for Toledo to squander an opportunity at a free possession.

Western Michigan has mastered the best goal line play

In 2005, before the days of college football Twitter, the infamous “Bush Push” rocked the sport. At the time, it was illegal to assist a runner as USC running back Reggie Bush did to his quarterback Matt Leinart to score the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame.

That rule quietly changed in the NFL and in college football prior to the 2013 season. Because of that, Western Michigan has discovered the most effective play for short-yardage situations.

In the first quarter on 4th and goal at the 1, the Broncos sent tight end Brent Borske into motion. Borske transitioned into the fullback spot and as soon as Kaleb Eleby snapped it, Borske got leverage and utilized his 6’6”, 275-pound frame to push Eleby into the end zone with full force. Toledo didn’t show much resistance against this perfect play design.

With under a minute left in the game, Western Michigan needed a quick touchdown while trailing by 10. Passing by the goal line wasn’t working, so the Broncos reverted to their reliable play, even with no timeouts. Another easy QB sneak touchdown.

We’ve seen many teams in college football overthink play-calling on 4th and 1. For example, West Virginia attempted rollout passes TWICE against Texas last Saturday in the red zone in the fourth quarter and converted neither. So many teams exclusively line up in shotgun and forget the high percentage nature of an under-center quarterback sneak. Add a 275-pound tight end to add a boost, and the play is virtually unstoppable. Western Michigan might set a trend (or force another rule change) with this genius design.

D’Wayne Eskridge is best suited at wide receiver

D’Wayne Eskridge converted from wide receiver to cornerback prior to the 2019 season. He still took snaps on offense, but Eskridge’s primary focus a year ago was on the defensive side of the ball.

He’s too valuable to not serve as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Eskridge might be the best wide receiver in the MAC, and he certainly possesses the skill set to play on Sundays. The fifth-year senior caught seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown against Toledo, following up a 114-yard, 2-touchdown performance at Akron in the prior week.

Eskridge has a ridiculous set of wheels, and once clocked a 4.33-second laser timed 40-yard dash. The quick slant against man coverage is his forte.

Eskridge isn’t only a problem for defenders with his speed. He does an incredible job at high-pointing the ball, as he demonstrated on a 31-yard catch on Western Michigan’s penultimate possession. One drive later, Eskridge was the recipient of the 18-yard reception that sent up the fake spike. On that play, he adjusted midair to corral a difficult catch and pick up optimal yardage. With 255 yards and three touchdowns through two games, it’s clear Eskridge is top-tier talent at the wide receiver position.

A Toledo win wouldn’t have come without controversy

Toledo played an excellent game for roughly 57 minutes Wednesday night in Kalamazoo. The Rockets led by 10 points with under a minute remaining and had one more play gone their way, we’re talking about a 2-0 Toledo squad.

However, there was about to be an ugly feud between Western Michigan fans and MAC officiating had the Broncos defied the astronomically low 0.01 percent win probability with two minutes remaining. Two highly debatable, monumental calls in the second half both swung in favor of the Rockets.

In the third quarter, Toledo led 24-21 before a pivotal sequence changed the tone of the game. On 1st and goal at the Western Michigan 7-yard line, Eli Peters threw a pass directly into the hands of Bronco cornerback Patrick Lupro in the end zone. A flag was thrown for pass interference, and while there was contact between Toledo wide receiver Isaiah Winstead and Lupro, nothing forcible was exhibited that changed the outcome of the play. One play later, Toledo scored a touchdown on a short run by Micah Kelly, extending its lead to double-digits.

Toledo extended its lead to double-digits once again to follow up a controversial call. But this one feels closer to a 50/50 decision.

In a surprise move, Jason Candle left his kicker sidelined on 4th and 11 from the Western Michigan 15, opting to gamble with his offense. Quarterback Eli Peters dumped it off to running back Bryant Koback and Koback powered his way past a series of Bronco tacklers toward the sideline. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Koback landed on the first down marker and completely damaged the thing. Upon first glance and even after watching replays, the positioning of the ball and the movement of the marker make it very unclear whether Koback reached the sticks. The referees initially ruled he gained the sufficient 11 yards, but it was reviewed.

Upon further review, and after an additional measurement with a broken first down marker, the ruling on the field stood — by about an inch. No index cards were utilized to determine if Koback converted the first down. The aesthetic of the measurement is pure comedy, however.

Anyway, we’d like to see the broken first down marker turn into a rivalry trophy for Western Michigan and Toledo games for years to come. Wednesday night’s showdown was an unforgettable matchup between the programs, and I’m sure neither fanbase will forget that one any time soon.