WMU football is preparing to take on Eastern Michigan for its home finale, looking to get to 5-0 with a possibility of securing a spot in the MAC championship game.
“This is one of the teams that took our chances of going to the MAC championship game away last year, and we know that,” head coach Tim Lester said in his press conference this week. “It’s the one team that never gets -- they never get blown out. They’re masters at staying in every single game.”
The Eagles may come into this game at 0-4 on the year, but the Broncos know better than to overlook Eastern Michigan. Last year, EMU snapped a five-game losing streak in the series against WMU with Preston Hutchinson coming off the bench as an unknown quarterback and throwing for over 300 yards.
Each of the three matchups the Broncos have had with EMU since Lester became the head coach have been decided by seven points or fewer.
WMU offense vs EMU defense
WMU was held to season-lows in points (30) and yards (325) last week. The Huskies nearly pulled off the upset by using the same formula Toledo used to slow down the Broncos’ offense: keep them off the field. In the two games that WMU has had more time of possession than their opponent: they’ve scored 52 and 58 points. In the two that they have had less (both in which they had the ball for less than 22 minutes), they have managed 41 and 30 points.
Eastern Michigan’s defense has averaged 504.8 yards allowed this season. In spite of the struggles on the defensive side, the team has still played in three one-possession games this year. The one thing the defense has done well this year is force turnovers.
EMU’s defense starts with and centers around linebacker Terry Myrick. Myrick has 51 tackles this year, one sack, a forced fumble, two fumbles recovered and two pass breakups. Turan Rush at defensive end leads the team with 3.5 sacks while Alvinoski LaFleur leads the secondary with two interceptions and a forced fumble.
The rest of the Eagles defense has 1.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. If the Broncos are able to keep those three away from the football, the offense should be in good shape.
Eastern Michigan’s defense has been particularly susceptible to the run. The Eagles have allowed over five yards per carry and just over 250 rushing yards per game. The WMU offensive line should be able to pave the way for the Broncos to keep that damage going, and Lester expects to have at least two healthy running backs in the game.
“(Sean Tyler) jogged over the weekend and he did a good job,” Lester said of the injury issues at running back. “He’s probably going to be a game-time (decision), day-to-day guy. Jaxson (Kincaide) I think will be back to 100%.”
La’Darius Jefferson, the Broncos’ leading rusher with 335 yards on the season, is also healthy heading into the game against the Eagles.
The Broncos have also been dealing with injury issues at wide receiver, as Jaylon Hall and DaShon Bussell were both out in the win over Northern Illinois. Lester said Hall was back practicing with the team as of Monday but gave no update on Bussell’s status. With D’Wayne Eskridge and Skyy Moore, the Broncos still carry two receivers on the Biletnikoff Award watchlist and should be just fine on the perimeter.
WMU defense vs EMU offense
Eastern Michigan’s offense has been all about Preston Hutchinson and basically nothing but Hutchinson. He’s accounted for all 13 touchdowns the Eagles have scored this year, and leads the team in rushing attempts and yards, more than doubling anyone else on the roster in both, along with being 86-139 through the air for 1100 yards and seven touchdowns.
EMU’s biggest offensive issue has been 11 turnovers in four games. Much like how the Broncos just played against Northern Illinois, however, past turnovers do not guarantee future giveaways. NIU had eight turnovers in its first three games before not giving the ball away against Western Michigan. The Broncos defense has forced just three turnovers on the year in spite of takeaways being such a strength for the defensive unit in 2019.
A team as pass-happy as the Eagles requires the defense to make the difficult choice between sitting back in coverage or trying to pressure the quarterback into mistakes with the blitz. The Broncos have done a good job of getting pressure with just the defensive front, but injuries have started to pile up.
“Offensively we’ve had a couple people out, but not like the defense,” Lester said. “They’re in a whole other world of leaning on each other, counting on guys to play probably more snaps than we’re used to playing, and the guys have responded. They got pressure on the quarterback late (against NIU), that was the second time this year that we needed a stop at the end of the game to win.”
Ali Fayad has missed each of the past two games for the Broncos, and Lester said he is “hopeful” that he will be able to play against Eastern Michigan. Fellow defensive end Marshawn Kneeland, who had been starting in the place of Andre Carter, got hurt on an onside kick attempt and is doubtful to play against EMU. Carter was back against Northern Illinois and should be healthy again this week.
Keeping Eastern Michigan’s passing attack in check will be no easy task for the WMU secondary, as the Eagles boast three receivers with at least 14 catches and at least 190 yards on the year. They will not win a lot of jump balls, as Quian Williams is the tallest of the group at 6’0, but they have speed and a steady quarterback who can find holes in the defense to get them the ball.
The WMU defense will also have to keep an eye on the Eagles’ tight ends in the red zone. Bryson Cannon and Thomas Odukoya both have two touchdown catches on the season and function as bigger, more physical targets when EMU has less room to operate.
Score prediction: WMU 35, EMU 27
The game will kick off from Waldo Stadium at 2 p.m. on Saturday and be streamed on ESPN+.