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What We Learned from Western Michigan’s 12-10 win over Central Michigan

A late safety produced the difference in the score, but why couldn’t the teams separate from each other in the snow?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 NIU at Western Michigan Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Western Michigan got to play spoiler for Central Michigan in a beautiful, snowy game in Mount Pleasant. The Broncos won 12-10, and the difference in the score was a fourth-quarter safety followed by the field goal that gave them the lead.

The game was very close from start to finish. The teams were separated by a maximum of seven points, and very briefly. Central answered Western’s touchdown on the first play from scrimmage afterward.

Answering the question of what separated the Broncos and Chippewas is relatively easy, although the margins are exceptionally slim. Unfortunately, the “why” is a consistent answer: snow.

The reason almost every decision was made in this game was due to snow. The game was beautiful to watch, but the strategy was simplified for this game before it started.

Western Michigan wins a statistical coin flip

Team Yards Per Play 3rd Downs Avg Yards to Go Scoring Opps Avg Field Position
W. Michigan 5.6 4 for 15 8.1 3 25.4
C. Michigan 5.4 6 for 13 6.6 1 20.0

This was not a game where despite the close score, one team held a clear advantage in the stats. This game was extremely close.

A snowy, slippery field can add importance to starting field position, but that wasn’t the case here. Neither team averaged good field position and the drives where points were attempted were not the result of a rare great starting spot. Western Michigan scored on drives starting from their own 2 and 35-yard line. They missed field goals when they started on their own 8 and 35. They went three and out on the only drive that started in Central Michigan territory.

Central Michigan scored on a drive that started from their own 40 in one play. That 60-yard Bert Emanuel Jr touchdown run would have scored from anywhere. The Central Michigan field goal drive started from their own 20-yard line, and went 74 yards before stalling.

The Chippewas had better success on third down and were in better third down situations as the game went on. The teams were basically even in yards per play, so how did Central not generate more scoring opportunities?

Western Michigan’s defense would give up some big plays but didn’t allow enough for Central Michigan to sustain drives and kept the big plays out of the endzone. The Chippewas ran 18 fewer plays than the Broncos and averaged 4.8 plays per drive. Essentially every drive was one first down on two plays that totaled around 20 yards, then the Bronco defense got off the field in the next set of downs.

The Broncos held the Chippewas to four yards per play or fewer on seven of their ten drives. When the best play from each CMU drive is removed, they achieved 78 yards on the remaining 38 plays. That’s a shade over two yards per play and that’s not good enough to keep moving the ball.

Western Michigan was able to sustain their drives much better, but they weren’t able to convert that into points. Sean Tyler had his own explosive run touchdown, but the Broncos had similar struggles outside of that. Some were self-inflicted.

Despite better success keeping drives alive and putting themselves in scoring positions much more frequently, they settled for redzone field goals. Field goals on a cold and snowy night were a mistake, especially before the snow had been cleared from the field. The Broncos missed a 25-yard field goal and had a 22-yard attempt blocked.

Each offense matched the other in their scoring and ultimately the game was decided when the Bronco defense sacked Emanuel Jr in the endzone for a safety.

Initially ruled a defensive touchdown, a review turned it into a safety and WMU kicked the go-ahead field goal on their next drive.

The Bronco defense limits big plays

After Michigan State torched the Bronco defense for long touchdown after long touchdown, it’s quite surprising that the Broncos are in the top half of college football defenses at limiting big plays. Explosive plays were a problem this defense could not solve in 2021 either. The in-season turnaround has been impressive.

Bert Emanuel Jr took off for a 60-yard touchdown run on Central Michigan’s second drive, and the Bronco defense kept everything else in front of them. Central did not score another touchdown and ran plays across the 50-yard line on only two drives. The Broncos did allow occasional chunk plays but they didn’t allow them to create scoring opportunities for the Chippewas.

The Central Michigan offensive gameplan chipped in here, but the Bronco defense did their job exceptionally well in a rivalry game.

High-pressure situations force WMU offense to respond

The Broncos took the lead on their last offensive drive and have seen their offense come alive in the second half in three of their last four games. Each of the last four games has been low-scoring affairs with the Bronco offense applying pressure in the second half.

The Broncos had a streak of four consecutive drives where they averaged less than 1.5 yards per play. The game remained tied for most of that stretch, but it was pretty brutal out there. On their penultimate drive, while down a field goal, they made some progress. Seven plays went 38 yards and the punt pinned Central Michigan deep. The safety was a morale boost but it did little to change the game situation.

Western Michigan’s final drive averaged eight yards per play and covered 57-yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Two weeks ago in a loss to Bowling Green, the Broncos did the same thing. The Broncos doubled their yards per play in the second half and stormed back from a 13-point deficit to make it a 13-9 final. Their last offensive play was in the Bowling Green redzone, threatening to score and take the lead.

The Broncos were trailing in the Miami game and used productive second-half drives to score a touchdown, attempt (and miss) a field goal and ice the game in a 16-10 win.

It’s not the script that they should be trying to follow on a weekly basis, however, it is encouraging to see a young quarterback and offense rise to the occasion.

Western Michigan's defense continues to make their own explosive plays

The Bronco defense has made a living forcing turnovers during their four-game stretch of excellence. If the offense isn’t going to make big plays, the defense was going to do it on its own.

They forced one turnover against Central Michigan. It was an interception by Keni-H Lovely that was the dagger. CMU quarterback Jase Bauer threw a deep pass to Jalen McGaughy but didn’t get it far enough down the sideline. The ball sank to the middle of the field and Lovely drifted to the inside of McGaughy and made the diving catch with 52 seconds remaining in the game.

The defense also delivered the safety, or touchdown depending on your interpretation of the replay, that ended up being the difference in the game.

In the previous weeks, WMU intercepted Northern Illinois three times and forced three turnovers from Bowling Green. One of those was a strip at the goal line that absolutely kept the Broncos in the game. If the offense isn’t going to make game-winning plays, the defense will.

Questionable offensive gameplan from the Chippewas

Central Michigan’s offensive performance leaves more questions than answers. For starters, they telegraphed the play with their quarterback decision. Almost without fail, if Bert Emanuel Jr was under center it was a run play. If Jase Bauer was taking the snap a pass was called.

If it’s working there’s no reason to worry about being obvious. It just wasn’t working. Emanuel Jr’s final line of 32 passing yards on three completions and 98 rushing yards on 21 carries isn’t bad, given the snow. The biggest problem is the distribution of the rushing yards. Sixty of them came on one rush. His remaining stat line is 20 rushes for 38 yards. That’s awful. And it’s a lot of carries for something that isn’t working. In fairness, some of those are scrambles on passing attempts and not designed runs.

When Central Michigan fell behind the chains, Bauer came into the game in a tough spot. He was clearly the trusted passer, but an argument can be made that he should’ve been the starter, not the change-of-pace quarterback. He was the running quarterback that would come in to relieve Daniel Richardson earlier in the year so it’s not as if he’s immobile. As the trusted passer with the ability to scrable for his own yards (he had 218 yards and two touchdowns in his two most recent appearances), Bauer as the starter would’ve made the Broncos have to anticipate both the run and pass.

Emanuel exploded onto the scene with 293 rushing yards the previous and lead the Chippewas to a comeback win against Buffalo. He probably earned the start given that performance, but with the accumulated snow on the ground, that kind of performance was off the table.

Central Michigan ran the ball 36 times and only ten went to Lew Nichols. Nichols hasn’t been able to produce the stats he did last season, but when the quarterback run isn’t working it’s time to be creative and get the ball to a proven playmaker.

The lack of passing is worthy of scrutiny as well. Six completions on eleven attempts isn’t good but each completion averaged fifteen yards. Bauer’s attempts averaged just under 21-yards per completion. It was a bit of a lottery but more attempts at balance probably move the ball across midfield more often and create some space for the running game.

Central Michigan watched Emanuel Jr break free on a backyard football play early and kept waiting for it happen again. A more effective plan was out there.

Central Michigan’s defense was impressive

The Chippewa defense was as advertised. Coming into the game they created sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, intercepted passes and broke up passes at a rate that puts them in the top 15 in the nation.

They did it in this game too.

The big names came to play. Thomas Incoom added 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack to his 15.5 TFLs and 9.5 sacks he had coming in. He’s putting up MAC Defensive player of the year numbers from the defensive line. Donte Kent broke up three passes and Ronald Kent Jr added one to get to 10 on his season.

In total, the Chippewa defense had 10 tackles for loss and five passes were broken up. One play got loose on the Bronco's first drive, but nothing was easy after that. They forced field goals when the ball was in the redzone and blocked one of the attempts. It’s obvious but the defense deserved to win with their performance.