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Ye Olde Roundtable: Assessing the #MACtion bridge week

With the MAC now firmly in the weeknight rhythms, we scan the landscape for possible storylines.

James H. Jimenez

Welcome back, ye loyal faithful!

We took a week off to catch up on a few things, but we’re ack and better than ever, with a bit of a different format to make up for not having a piece out last week.

This time, we asked our panel to give us observations about all six of the games played over the last week-and-a-half, as well as to make general observations about the action which was and will be! We hope you like this format, it was a lot of fun to write for.

Our observations are below!

Western Michigan Broncos vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles

James H. Jimenez: I was baffled by how lifeless Eastern Michigan was throughout the contest. Their MAC West lives were hanging in the balance, but as soon as Western Michigan scored that first touchdown, you could feel the Eagles had more or less given up on the game entirely. There were lots of forlorn, exhausted faces on the sideline, and their on-field play looked like it was 75 percent speed. This is probably the worst version of the team I’ve seen in a while. But don’t let that sound like WMU wasn’t dominant; they absolutely earned this win, and look like they’re turning a page after some early season struggles. I did not have a lot of hope for Lance Taylor in his first year, but they’re looking resurgent in what is meant to be a Year 0 situation. Getting to 5-6 wins is entirely possible for WMU.

Drew Pearson: I predicted a tight win for Eastern Michigan because I thought their defense would be able to hold the Western Michigan offense in check. I was wrong. The Bronco offense was surprisingly solid on their way to 34 offensive points. They took advantage of good field positon, but that’s what a good offense does. The Eagles’ MAC Championship Game hopes are officially on life support, and their offense isn’t doing enough to win games. I didn’t see this much regression coming for them this year, but they still have a lot to play for.

Keith Gregorski: I like where WMU is headed under HC Lance Taylor. The Broncos have looked better and better as the season has progressed.

Alexis Baker: Can the real Eastern Michigan please stand up? The real Western Michigan, for that matter, but they won, so they will be spared the questions about team identity for now (unlike another MAC West team). But Eastern’s performance was alarming for a team that was in the running for the division title. Think we’re gonna have to put the parade through downtown Ypsilanti on what might end up being a permanent hold.

Miami RedHawks vs. Ohio Bobcats

James: I did not expect this sort of game from Miami at all. Given how vital Brett Gabbert is to how the offense operates, I assumed without him that the RedHawks wouldn’t be able to move the ball and keep defenses honest. But somehow, some way, Miami just always found that one extra play to keep drives alive on offense. Rashad Amos did a lot of that damage on the ground with 163 yards and a score, single-handedly pushing the ball forward as new QB Aveon Smith had under 60 yards passing heading into the fourth quarter. The result does confirm a number of concerns for the Bobcats. Especially striking is their inability to create separation or take the top off of the defense; Kurtis Rourke missed on several deep shots and receivers were struggling to pick up easy yards. You can’t let those opportunities slip away against one of the best defenses in the country.

Drew: What happened to Ohio’s offense? They’ve averaged 16 points over their last three games and lost two of the games. Kurtis Rourke had a good game and threw for over 300 yards, but the running plays were wasted downs. Miami is always a running back by committee team, but Rashad Amos ran wild for Miami. It’s a little shocking they had that kind of success with Aveon Smith at quarterback. Smith is a runner more than a passer and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that they ran the ball 46 times to 11 passes. It didn’t matter and Miami beat their #1 rival and their biggest hurdle on their way winning the MAC East.

Keith: I’m impressed with Miami’s response to the Brett Gabbert injury the previous week. Their special teams really made an impact too. Ohio’s 2023 offense is a mystery. Kurtis Rourke has been a gamer coming back from last year’s injury, but the offense has regressed in 2022 despite returning 9 of 11 starters. Could be a lot of reasons for the offensive issues, but one wonders if the explosive passing game is not what it was in 2022. One of the two graduating starters from 2022 was James Bostic, who was among the MAC’s best last year with over 18 yards per catch. The injury to Jacoby Jones earlier this year was huge as he was the main explosive play guy.

Alexis: I thought losing Brett Gabbert was curtains on the Redhawks’ season, but did they ever prove me wrong. Extremely stout showing from Miami, and concerning from Ohio—what happened to your offense, man?! There’s a pop missing to this Cats’ offense that could prove to be a problem down the line. They have Buffalo, Central Michigan, and Akron up, and an offense with zero zing to it is a massive concern.

Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Central Michigan Chippewas

James: NIU vs. CMU was a perfect love letter to Midwestern football. Snowy conditions, under the lights, two evenly-matched teams, with their divisional lives and the postseason in the balance. How can you not get romantic about games like this? CMU had the early advantage, forcing NIU into uncomfortable situations and taking the 24-3 halftime lead. But the Huskies, as they always seem to do, stormed back and made it a three-point contest with a chance to win at the end. It’s going to be very hard for the Huskies to qualify for the bowl season unless they win out after this loss, and with how uneven the team is currently, you can’t be assured which one you’re getting over the remaining three weeks. CMU needs just one more win to become bowl-eligible, and would have a chance at the MAC West title if they win out and Toledo misfires twice.

Drew: The middle of the MAC West, essentially excluding Toledo on top and Ball State at the bottom, is a mess. Any of those teams could beat each other at any point. I’m not sure who would win a best-of-seven series between Central Michigan and Northern Illinois. The CMU combo of Marion Lukes and Jase Bauer could be a problem for Western Michigan on Tuesday and Trayvon Rudolph finally looked like himself for NIU. The Huskies are in a good place for the remainder of their season, despite the loss.

Keith: For NIU, it has been really a tale of two teams this year. One version of NIU is a team with a glut of self-inflicted wounds like the one we saw in last week’s loss and the other version that can beat a MAC title challenger in Ohio and give the MAC West leader Toledo all it could handle in a two-point loss.

Alexis: Northern Illinois continues being the most frustrating team on the planet to me. WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE NORMAL? I don’t want to think about the Huskies or I just get angry, so I’m gonna focus on Central’s performance here. The first-half offense was going at full steam, but they... really just never came out of the locker room at halftime. That’s gonna be a problem if this team is gunning for that outward chance at a MAC title game appearance.

Buffalo Bulls vs. Toledo Rockets

James: Toledo was dominant from the word “go” in this one and it showed, both on the field and in the box score. This was a must-win game for Buffalo to keep pace with the Miami RedHawks in the MAC East division lead and they lost in bad fashion, looking every bit a three-win team with a malfunctioning offense. The UB defense has been great at presenting scoring opportunities with their emphasis on turnovers, but if you can’t be efficient with those chances, causing turnovers about as useless as letting a child handle your tax returns. Peny Boone has been a revelation at running back for Toledo and carried the Rockets on a day where Dequan Finn was not at his best. Boone will be in the running for MAC Offensive Player of the Year if he keeps this pace up.

Drew: No one can stop Toledo. Quarterback Dequan Finn wasn’t amazing but running back Peny Boone picked up the offense, and special teams chipped in. The defense was stellar again and it looks like the 2022 MAC Champions are on pace to do it again. Buffalo, on the other hand, is in serious trouble. They made Cole Snyder throw 41 passes and that’s just not their game. It’s their second MAC loss but with Ohio and Miami still on the schedule they might be in play depending on Bowling Green and tiebreakers. If they drop both of those games, as odds makers will expect, this season is a major disappointment.

Keith: Toledo has been so much fun to watch and showed that again last week with the explosive start to the game with the kickoff return and long touchdown run. I don’t often hear a lot of talk about the MAC’s most improved players, and there are several like Ohio’s DT Rayyan Buell. Yet Toledo’s RB Peny Boone has simply taken his game to a whole new level. In 2022, Boone had 116 carries for 443 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry with 3 scores. This year, with only 20 more carries so far, Boone has 990 yards, 7.2 per carry, and nine touchdowns.

Alexis: Really glad that of Toledo and Ohio, I chose to back the Rockets. That’s paid out for me beautifully (not literally, I don’t gamble). Dequan Finn didn’t have the most spectacular game of his career, but he’s still my favorite Tier 2 quarterback in the FBS. Really, really hoping the Rockets finish strong, because the way they’re playing, and with Air Force taking a 20-point beating from West Point, they’re the MAC’s representative in the New Year’s Six running. They received votes in the latest AP poll, but they still have to finish stronger than (in ascending order) Air Force, Fresno State, Liberty, and Tulane. (James Madison is ranked one spot underneath Tulane, but is bowl ineligible due to FCS-to-FBS promotion rules).

Bowling Green Falcons vs. Ball State Cardinals

James: Ball State has certainly found an offensive gameplan that works for them with the cementing of Kiael Kelly as a starter, but they’ll have to work out the kinks in real time if this is indeed the future of the team. This game was evenly matched, as Ball State’s defense did all it could to try and keep BGSU within arm’s length, but two costly turnovers by Kelly were the Cardinals’ undoing in this contest. BGSU also has problems of their own, with quarterback being a major black hole, but their running back stable has been reliable in both traditional running sets and as receivers. The defense and special teams continue to swarm the ball, with the Falcons’ D/ST unit once again terrorizing a MAC opponent to continue leading the country in takeaways and be Top 5 in punt/kick coverage.

Drew: I’ve never been high on Bowling Green this season but they are going to be a bowl team. Running back Terion Stewart left the game late, which is really bad news for them if he misses time. Despite my disbelief, they got big plays at the right times and avoided a late upset push by Ball State. Neither offense looked good, but Ball State’s is in a particularly bad place. They completed nine passes for 66 yards. The offense might be the most dynamic with Kiael Kelly at quarterback but it suffers from being one dimensional.

Keith: BSU’s defense has played pretty well the last four weeks but there is just not enough offense to win games and BSU is not getting many breaks with one of the worst turnover ratios in the FBS.

Alexis: Ah yes, the Battle of Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Both of these teams have clear struggle areas, but Ball State’s in a far worse place than I expected them to be in the preseason. There were a couple of weeks at the beginning where I thought they were just going through bad hiccups, but nope, this team needs a lot of help in the offseason. Kiael Kelly cannot be your entire offense.

Kent State Golden Flashes vs. Akron Zips

James: This was perhaps the most fun weeknight game of the season so far. It’s always volatile and unpredictable when watching two teams playing for pride so early in the season face off against one another, and KSU/Akron delivered. Kent State racing out to their huge lead showed off their ability to score in bunches and control the game— and Akron coming back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to win is exactly why we wait 11 months a year for weeknight #MACtion. The Zips had been so close for so long, with a frustrating nine losses in one-score games over the last 1.5 seasons— including two overtime games— it felt like something had to give, and it did. Kent State will surely be disappointed in the result, but you need to be punched in the mouth sometimes to know where you stand and what you need to fix.

Drew: Never turn the game off. If there is one thing we have learned this season, it’s to never turn the game off. Kent State was leading by 17 points after three quarters and The Undercuffler mounted the comeback. It was great to see the Zips have some fire after disappointing performances coming into the game. Each team showed off their best players: Chrishon McCray for Kent State and Lorenzo Lingard for Akron. It was a fun MAC rivalry game with both teams putting it all on the line for the Wagon Wheel.

Keith: Great rivalry game and MACtion game. Akron never gave up, completing a monster comeback winning by four points by scoring the last 21 points of the game. For two teams that have struggled in the win column this year and to regularly move the football, it was good to see some breakout offense and points scored.

Alexis: I adore games between the worst teams in a league because they’re either completely unwatchable or the best games of the week, and this was very much the latter. Akron is probably the more put-together of the two, and they proved it by winning in that way.

We asketh of the table for one general observation of the bridge week.

James: We’re getting some very healthy separation very quickly— though it’s in ways I may not have expected. Toledo and Miami seem destined to rematch in Detroit right now unless something apocalyptic happens, which makes the “race to six” all the more important for teams outside of the division lead. We’re already at three teams advancing and three teams eliminated from the postseason. Two more teams could be gone next week with a loss. We could be in a situation once again where a end-of-season game determines who goes bowling and who goes home. Who doesn’t love a game with stakes like that?

Drew: The first week of #MACtion delivered. CMU survived a big NIU comeback, BGSU had to stop Ball State’s last-minute drive to win and Akron completed the comeback to win a rivalry game. Toledo was the only wire-to-wire win. If the rest of the month delivers, which it certainly could with the level of parity normal in the MAC, November will be very entertaining. My only hope is that it’s not too much of a meat grinder and we get banger in Detroit to finish the conference season.

Keith: Off to a great start. Toledo continues to work towards a double-digit win season while rivals Akron and Kent State put on some of their best football of the year in a fun battle for the Wagon Wheel.

Alexis: There is definite wheat and chaff, but separating them is gonna take a few more weeks. Let’s beat the middle of the MAC into submission and see what happens, eh?

The table asketh: Which Week 11 matchup is the most intriguing and why?

James: Homer bias applies, but it’s Western Weekend. Central needs to win in order to keep pace with the Toledo Rockets in the West (they’re two games behind, but can get one back on the last week of the season via head-to-head if need be), while Western needs to win in order to stay eligible for the postseason. Oh and don’t forget: there’s not one but two trophies on the line, as both the Victory Cannon and the Michigan MAC Trophy are on the line this week.

Drew: Central Michigan at Western Michigan. It’s the Battle for the Victory Cannon and can get pretty nasty. Ohio and Buffalo might have real stakes, but this is the biggest rivalry game on the schedule this week and should be a pretty even game. Good weather for November is predicted, so get to ESPNU and watch a good one!

Keith: Toledo vs EMU. I think at this point in the season Toledo is “Must See TV” as the Rockets are not only fun to watch but might start checking some major boxes like a ranking in the polls if they can keep winning.

Alexis: Central-Western, no question. Not only is it a trophy game, it’s a double trophy game, and it’s also a critical game to find out who, exactly, these teams are. Are Central and Western more than their middling records suggest? Only one way to find out.

Have thee a question to ask of Ye Olde Roundtable? Make sure to tag Hustle Belt on Twitter or use #AskethYORT!

Thanks for reading!