In a crucial divisional matchup, and a rivalry game to boot, Central Michigan traveled to Kalamazoo Wednesday night looking for their first victory over Western Michigan since 2017.
The Chippewas emerged victorious, overcoming a slow start to defeat the Broncos 42-30 and bring the Victory Cannon trophy back to Mt. Pleasant for the first time in four years.
With both of these teams sitting at 2-2 in the tightly contested MAC West, this was a crucial game for two squads that still harbored aspirations of winning the division and getting to Ford Field in the first week of December. With the victory, Central Michigan kept their division title hopes alive, although they will still need some help to get there. Western Michigan, on the other hand, now has three conference losses, with all three coming against divisional rivals.
While the Broncos may not be mathematically eliminated from the title race, Western is now two games back with only three weeks to go. With these two teams seemingly headed in different directions as we enter the home stretch, let’s take a look at the major takeaways from this rivalry matchup.
The Chippewas offense has the most dynamic duo in the MAC
It’s no secret that there is a ton of offensive talent in the MAC this year. QB’s Dustin Crum, Ben Bryant and Kaleb Eleby and their respective receiving corps have given defenses nightmares all season. The Northern Illinois running game seems to pick up 200 yards every week, no matter who is in the backfield.
Despite all of that, no team has a one-two punch that can match the Chippewas duo of WR Kalil Pimpleton and RB Lew Nichols III.
Pimpleton is a known entity, as evidenced by his First Team All-MAC selection in 2019 and Second Team selection in 2020. Pimpleton has been dynamic this year, ranking fifth in the MAC with 691 receiving yards on 43 catches and also adding two rushing touchdowns on a 5.0 yards per carry average.
Pimpleton’s true value showed on Wednesday night, where he scored three times in a five minute span after Western Michigan jumped out to a 14-0 lead. His two punt return touchdowns completely changed the momentum of the game. While Pimpleton’s five foot nine frame may make some dismiss his pro prospects, his ability as a returner will absolutely allow him a chance to make a roster at the next level.
While Nichols did have some good moments in 2020, he was considered the second back between established back Kobe Lewis, who ran for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2019. When it was announced before this season that Lewis would miss the year due to injury, there were questions as to how Nichols would respond moving into the lead role.
Nichols has answered those questions emphatically. After his 26 carry, 163-yard performance on Wednesday, Nichols has now rushed for over 150 yards in three of the past four games and is now averaging a robust 5.6 yards per carry on 192 attempts. Not only does Nichols lead the MAC in rushing yards with 1,078, but he is in front by over 200 yards (Toledo’s Bryant Koback comes in second with 822). That yardage total ranks Nichols fourth in the entire FBS.
The Chippewas defense has had its struggles to be sure, but this CMU offense give them a chance in every contest. A big part of that is the dynamic ability of Pimpleton and Nichols.
The Broncos all of a sudden have a turnover problem
For the first portion of the season, one of the staples of the Broncos offense was that they would take care of the football. Through the first five weeks of the season, Western only turned the ball over two times, which was a big part of their 4-1 start. After their 24-17 victory at Buffalo in Week 5, the Broncos seemed like the best team in the MAC.
In the last month, things have fallen apart.
The first cracks appeared in Week 6 against Ball State, when the Broncos gave the ball away four times in the 45-20 loss to the Cardinals. All four turnovers led directly to Ball State points in what was a disheartening loss for Tim Lester’s squad.
The Broncos did well to protect the ball against Kent State, avoiding turnovers and seemingly righting the ship in the 64-31 win over the Golden Flashes. Unfortunately for Broncos fans, the turnover bug has re-emerged for WMU the last two weeks, as they have turned the ball over twice in each of their last two losses against Toledo and CMU. After only turning the ball over twice in the first five weeks, Western has now given the ball away eight times in their last four contests. It’s not hard to see why the Broncos are in the middle of a 1-3 slump after that 4-1 start.
Western has winnable games these next two weeks against Akron and Eastern Michigan, and a season ending contest against division leading Northern Illinois looms large. If the Broncos want to finish the season strong and get back to a bowl game, it is imperative that they clean this up.
It might be time to start asking some tough questions in Kalamazoo
The Western Michigan fan base has understandably been a bit frustrated with the state of their program for the last four years. Ever since the magical 13-0 record and MAC championship in 2016, the Broncos have quickly slid back to the middle of the pack in the MAC.
Despite recruiting well and having as much talent as any team in the conference, Tim Lester holds only a 29-24 record in his five years at the helm. The Broncos have not won more than seven games in a season since the aforementioned MAC championship in 2016.
The 2021 season has been especially frustrating for Broncos fans. QB Kaleb Eleby leads the MAC in passing yards and owns a pristine 13:3 TD-to-INT ratio. WR Skyy Moore has been equally as phenomenal, ranking second in the MAC with 823 receiving yards and five scores.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos lead the MAC in total defense, allowing only 330.3 yards per game. The rush defense also leads the MAC at 130.7 yards per game, and the pass defense is second in the conference.
All of these statistics are positive indicators, and should belong to a team that is competing for the conference championship. Yet, the Broncos sit 2-3 in the MAC and last in the West. It is a baffling contradiction. In a situation like this, it’s hard to not to look at the coaching staff as part of the issue. If the Broncos struggle to end the season as they have over the last month, it will be an interesting off-season.