Western Michigan football lost a heartbreaking 22-21 game at Eastern Michigan Tuesday to end its hopes at a MAC Championship and provide a real threat to the team’s bowl hopes. A win next Tuesday in the season finale over Northern Illinois would all but guarantee a bowl bid for the Broncos, as it would give the team a 7-5 record on the year.
Beating the Huskies will be easier said than done, especially in DeKalb. Not only has Northern Illinois already secured the MAC West title, but the Broncos haven’t won at NIU since 2007 and WMU is just 1-9 in road games against NIU since 2000.
“Big challenge for us, DeKalb’s a tough place to play,” head coach Tim Lester said. “Today was a great day of practice, I think (the team is) excited for the challenge.”
Northern Illinois has had a lot of success running the football this year, leading the MAC with 228.3 yards per game on the ground, and the Huskies boast five players with over 250 yards rushing this season. Western Michigan still has the fewest rushing yards allowed per game in the MAC at 136.1 but is coming off of allowing 255 yards on the ground to EMU.
“There’s gonna be five, six, seven, eight lineman sometimes,” Lester said. “A lot of gaps, a lot of big bodies, and tough, physical runners. And their quarterback can run. They do have good backs, but they also have a really good o-line and a good scheme.”
Nine of Northern Illinois’ 11 games this season have been decided by one possession including all seven of its MAC contests. The Huskies are 7-2 in those one-score games and Lester credited NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s leadership as part of the reason why.
“He’s just a great leader,” Lester said of Lombardi. “He kind of wears the personality of the team, just tough and gritty, never too high, never too low. Very calm guy, can make every throw, and can make throws while getting hit. Being in close games, it’s good to have that guy.”
Corey Crooms went down with an apparent knee injury late in the second quarter against Eastern Michigan and did not return to the game. Lester said that the injury was just a bruise and that he expects Crooms to play against NIU.
“Luckily it was a bruise, because it looked worse,” Lester said. “They did all the tests and he came out clean. It’s a pretty good shiner he’s got there but he was moving around today, jogging around… I’m pretty sure he’ll practice tomorrow. Dodged a bullet, you could say, that he’s okay and he’ll be ready to go.”
This is the second time in Lester’s tenure as head coach that the Broncos are facing an NIU team that has already wrapped up the MAC West title, as the teams met under the same circumstances in Kalamazoo in 2018. WMU won that game to move to 7-5, securing a bid to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Lester said that it was a chance for the team to prove that it could be more consistent and build towards the future. He cited his freshman year (1996) and 2015 as times when WMU won at the end of the year and used it as a springboard to success the next year. In 2015, the Broncos took down a then-ranked Toledo team to end the regular season before winning the Bahamas Bowl and going 13-1 in ‘16 with a MAC Championship and trip to the Cotton Bowl.
In 1996, an 0-9 Bronco team won its last two games, which was not enough to save head coach Al Molde’s job but did help boost the team to an 8-3 season in the first year under Gary Darnell in ‘97.
Kaleb Eleby has had some ball security issues, losing several fumbles as he has scrambled out of the pocket and not secured the ball well enough while looking to pick up yards.
“We’ve been sending (Eleby) over with the running backs because that’s when it’s come out,” Lester said. “Those are the ones that can be prevented. So he’s been working with the running backs on ball security, and that’s just to make sure his natural reaction is to make sure his wrist is above his elbow and he knows how to squeeze it.”
Skyy Moore has been a big playmaker for the Bronco offense this year, and against Eastern Michigan he had career highs with 12 catches and 181 yards to move over 1,000 yards receiving on the year. Lester talked about how the team has had to counter-adjust to opponents focusing more on Moore in the second half of this season.
“Three, four, five weeks ago was the first time somebody changed their defense for him, which then changes your offense,” Lester said about Moore’s role in the offense. “Now; one, you have to get him touches, and two, there are some other things that should get better in your offense.”
Lester added that Toledo was the first team to really have a difference-making plan for Moore, and the team has made some changes since then to make sure Moore is still a factor without diminishing other parts of the offense.
Lester closed this week’s press conference talking about the team preparing for the usual cold and windy atmosphere playing at Northern Illinois in late November.
“(Thursday’s) walkthrough was very similar (to expected weather conditions in DeKalb), it was like 20 mile per hour winds and (temperature) in the 30s,” Lester said. “It’s always windy there, it might rain, it’s definitely going to be cold, (but) both teams are going to play in the same weather. We gotta just do a good job of going out there and seeing what we can and can’t do in warmups and make sure that we’re giving our guys the best chance to succeed.”
WMU will conclude the regular season with its game at Northern Illinois Tuesday. Kickoff for the game will be at 7 p.m. and the game will air on ESPNU.