In the 10 previous years of the Michigan MAC Trophy's existence, only one school has successfully pulled off a two-year sweep of their rivals. With a win on Thursday in Ypsilanti, Western Michigan can join the 2009-10 Central Michigan teams in that selective company.
The Western Michigan Broncos (4-3, 3-0) have never won back-to-back trophies like their two rival schools have. The Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-7, 0-4) have done it twice, but had to win via retention on the back half of wins in 2008 and 2012. And with the ever difficult Rynearson Stadium standing in the Broncos' way of the double home-and-home sweep, the Eagles look to remind everyone why it's just so difficult to sweep the Michigan MAC slate in any year.
So with that, let's breakdown some of the match-ups that will take place on the field on Thursday, and see who can win the first weeknight MAC-on-MAC game of the year.
Western Michigan run game vs Eastern Michigan run defense
We'll start with the most lopsided match-up either team will face, which is when the vastly improved Bronco run game goes up against the worst run defense in the nation.
The Eagles have been terrible at stopping the run, giving up an average of 340 yards/game on the ground alone. That's nearly 50 yards more than the next team (New Mexico State), which is never a good thing to say. Conversely, the Broncos are averaging 263 rushing yards/game in MAC play, with Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin leading the way. With less than ideal weather conditions expected (windy and wet), expect the Broncos to try to establish the rush early and often.
Verdict: Massive advantage - WMU
Western Michigan pass game vs Eastern Michigan secondary
I'll admit, I don't know too much about the Eagles' pass defense. That's probably because we never see them get worked with the run defense so porous and the record suggesting teams don't really have to pass to "catch up" in the score. With that said, Eastern Michigan is 20th nationally against the pass, only allowing 183 yards/game.
But like I said earlier, with so many teams electing to run versus throw, that stat could be misleading. And it pretty much is. The Eagles only have 1 interception on the season in 8 games, and 107th in pass efficiency, with opposing quarterbacks averaging a 146.3 QB rating on the year.
That does not bode well when you face a quarterback like Zach Terrell. The redshirt junior has nearly 1,800 yards and a 20-6 TD/INT ratio, and no interceptions in MAC play. His primary weapons - Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis - are both pro potential players with deadly speed. The Eagles may surprise, but the Broncos are too efficient to lose this game through the air.
Verdict: Massive advantage - WMU
Eastern Michigan run game vs Western Michigan run defense
We turn now to when the Eagles have the ball, and OMG! FINALLY SOMETHING THEY DON'T SUCK AT!
The Eagles are 28th in the nation with 5 yards/rush, and are 4th in MAC play at 181 yards/game. Shaq Vann and Darius Jackson are a solid 1-2 duo, with Jackson being just one of three backs in the MAC to average over 100 yards per game in conference play. Vann is a solid complement, and can get those "hard earned" yards on 3rd down.
The Broncos have been working on their rush defense, and despite a tough non-conference schedule against some solid run-first teams (Michigan State, Georgia Southern, and Ohio State), they rank in the middle of the pack nationally. In MAC play, they've been even more impressive, allowing only 106 yards/game on the ground, 2nd only to Bowling Green. Ever since Grant DePalma returned from injury, it seems the Broncos have been better, but you never know when the old run defense might show up.
Verdict: Slight advantage - EMU
Eastern Michigan pass game vs Western Michigan secondary
Probably the toughest match-up to gauge here. Even with the fact that EMU likely has to pass in most of their games, their passing offense ranks 70th nationally and 10th in MAC play. They have as many touchdowns as interceptions (11), and neither Brogan Roback or Reginald Bell seem to have a grip on the offense.
However, the group they'll be facing is not much better. The Bronco secondary ranks slightly better nationally, and is 9th in MAC play, but they've been looking very unstable as of late. Ronald Zamort has not played consistently all year, and first year cornerback Darius Phillips - who leads the team in passes defended (12) and interceptions (3) - has been picked on in MAC play and has looked downright awful in October.
With the weather likely helping the Broncos out here, and the fact that the WMU secondary has had to face some pretty decent quarterbacks until this point, the verdict is somewhat easy.
Verdict: Slight advantage - WMU
Let's start with the Broncos. Punter J Schroeder has been solid all year, again, and has flipped the field whenever the WMU needed him. Having Braverman on punt returns and Phillips, who leads the MAC with 26.7 yards/return, on kickoffs is also a huge boost. The lone question mark is Andrew Haldeman. The senior kicker has missed two PATs already this year, and 5-for-9 on field goals, including a 3-for-5 mark on 30-39 yarders. Not good.
For the Eagles, Devon Mitchell has been solid on the return game. Austin Barnes is a solid punter, averaging 44 yards/punt in MAC play, and has been called on often. But the gem is Dylan Mulder. The senior kicker is perfect on PATs this year (25-25), and has a solid leg, despite some shaky accuracy. Mulder is 8-for-11 this year on attempts, but is 4-for-5 from 40+ yards out.
With this likely coming down to returns versus a game-winning field goal, this one should be easy.
Verdict: Moderate advantage - WMU
Intangibles and coaching
Let's lump these two together. The Eagles and Broncos both have young coaches, with three full years at the FBS level under their belts COMBINED. Chris Creighton has more experience overall, but Fleck is a master recruiter, so we're going to call this a draw.
So now we turn to the intangibles. The Eagles have won 3 of the last 4 meetings between these two teams at Rynearson Stadium, including an OT win in 2013 and a huge upset win in 2011 against a bowl bound Bronco team (that featured All-American Jordan White). Before last year, the Eagles had won three straight in the series, with a win in 2012 all but sealing Bill Cubit's fate as "former" head coach, the same week Ron English was fired for his "s**t bird football" rant.
Trophy history is also not on the Broncos' side. As stated before, only one team has swept consecutive years against in the tri-valry, and only one team has won the Michigan MAC Trophy before November 1st (2009 - Central Michigan). Still, this is a Bronco team that knows the history of the EMU rivalry, and doesn't want to be embarrassed with a MAC West Championship still very much alive.
Verdict: Slight advantage - EMU
The Broncos have a massive advantage when they have the ball, and the defense should be able to stop the Eagles enough times to cruise to a victory. Rynearson is intimidating in that it provides a false sense of security with the empty stands. However, the fans that do make it, are passionate, and the open space can mess with your head if you're not in the right mindset (the track exasperates this. Ask anyone who has played at Buffalo). Fleck will have his team ready to play, but the Eagles always manage to spring an upset at home. Could Western Michigan be next?