Preview: Rivalry, cold conditions highlight battle for Victory Cannon

Players high five each other after scoring during a game against Buffalo, Wednesday, Nov. 9 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Six weeks into the 2022 College Football season, the sheer excitement and optimism Central Michigan football carried into the season was already all but dashed. 

The Chippewas were 1-5 and coming off of an 0-2 start in Mid-American Conference play, with the prospect of bowl eligibility seemingly shot. 

And yet, a month later, a bowl game doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. 

For head coach Jim McElwain, the focus of the team has been less on hitting that specific benchmark, and more centered on figuring out why it is that the team found itself in this position in the first place. 

“Very disappointed where we’re at from a win-loss perspective,” McElwain said Monday. “You know, (we) expect going into (this week) that we should already be bowl eligible. This is a team that I just care dearly about, and I just want to see be successful. In order to do that, you gotta take care of business and trust the guy next to you." 

“Quite honestly, we haven’t really thought about it because of where we’re at. We just gotta go play a hell of a team in a rivalry game, where nothing else matters except for those two teams on the field.”

With bragging rights and the Victory Cannon on the line, CMU welcomes Western Michigan to Kelly/Shorts Stadium on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

Meet the opponent

Just based on numbers alone, Western Michigan is a completely different team on offense than on defense. 

With inconsistencies in both production and personnel in the passing game this season, the Broncos have struggled to put up points against opponents, averaging 19.6 points per game, which ranks 10th among the 12 teams in the Mid-American Conference. 

Over the last three games, true freshman Treyson Bourget has been pressed into starting duty following a knee injury to the previous starter, redshirt freshman Jack Salopek. 

In each of his three outings, Bourget has thrown for less than 200 yards. While keeping the ball relatively safe (he’s only thrown one interception in this span), WMU has mostly relied on its rushing attack while Bourget gets his legs under him.

The most important piece of that rushing attack is junior running back Sean Tyler. Tyler is most dangerous in the open field, thanks to his impressive speed and vision. He’s run for 719 yards and five touchdowns this season and operates as the engine of WMU’s offense. He’s also chipped in 12 receptions for 111 yards and another score through the air. 

Defensively, Western Michigan has been one of the top units in the MAC, ranking second in points allowed per game with 26.5. Additionally, the unit gives up 364.1 yards per game, which also ranks second in the MAC.

The Broncos have been very solid both against the run and the pass. WMU’s run defense ranks just below CMU’s, allowing 142.5 yards per contest. The Broncos are fifth in the MAC with 221.6 yards per game allowed. 

One of the Broncos’ biggest staples on defense is their ability to create turnovers, forcing 17 on the season.

“They do a great job defensively turning the ball over,” McElwain said. “Offensively, we like to give other (teams) the ball (this season). They do a great job of taking it away. So, for us, it’s really the idea of focusing on what you’ve got to do, and more importantly, do it at a high level.”

Pacing the Broncos in both receptions (50), receiving yards (725), and receiving touchdowns (5) is junior wideout Corey Crooms, who torched CMU in their meeting last season with 118 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, Western is led by senior linebackers Zaire Barnes and Corvin Moment, who have combined for 146 tackles this season. Moment also leads the team in sacks (6.5) and TFLs (10.5). 

Big question: Can CMU repeat its rushing production?

The idea of repeating the production on the ground CMU got last week is rather unrealistic considering QB Bert Emanuel Jr. set multiple records in his 293-yard rushing performance. 

However, if the Chippewas can rely on the ground game and establish the run early, this opens up the field for the quarterbacks to let it rip, whether that’s Daniel Richardson, Emanuel or Jase Bauer (who is expected to play after missing last week’s game with a rib injury).

As with any performance as impressive as Emanuel’s was, CMU will naturally try to get him going again. Yet, Emanuel is no longer a trick up the sleeves of McElwain and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

“From a preparation standpoint, you can’t just focus on one thing,” McElwain said of utilizing Emanuel. “You’ve got to be able to do multiple things. You hope you can keep (WMU) off balance enough to create a few explosives and give yourself an opportunity to win.”

With Bauer returning to the lineup, the hope for the Chippewas’ offense is that the two of them can split the workload in terms of rushing alongside junior running back Lew Nichols, who is also slated to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game. Between those two, Emanuel shouldn’t have to shoulder the load he did last week, despite the outstanding results.

Key to victory: Keep the ball out of the Broncos’ defensive unit’s hands

As previously mentioned, this matchup does not favor CMU in terms of turning the ball over. The Broncos love to force turnovers, and the Chippewas love turning it over. 

While the rotation of quarterbacks CMU has deployed over the last few weeks has done wonders for its offensive production, it comes with risks. The value of building momentum through individual plays cannot be overstated. Without the ability to get into a rhythm due to consistent rotation, the quarterbacks may be liable to commit more turnovers.

CMU knows it must do everything in its power to keep the ball in the offensive unit’s hands without giving it back to WMU. With the defensive unit continuing its strong, consistent play, the results of this game could very well boil down to the offense’s security of the football.

Central Michigan (4-6) vs Western Michigan (3-7)

All-time series: 51-40-2 Western Michigan

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

Date: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2022

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

Odds: CMU -10

Over/Under: 49.5


Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Guiterrez)