Already one of the most intense rivalries in the Mid-American Conference, Saturday's MAC West showdown between visiting Western Michigan and Central Michigan will likely go a long way toward deciding the MAC West crownagain.
WMU QB Tim Hiller tops the MAC with 23 TD's
Though this year's game, scheduled for a Noon kickoff, between the two longstanding in-state rivals arrives earlier in the season than last year's classic clash, a 34-31 Central Michigan victory that clinched the MAC West title for the Chippewas, the stakes will still be high for this year's edition of the contest.
Both teams come into the season undefeated in MAC play with Western Michigan holding a half-game lead at 4-0 in conference games (6-1 overall) while Central Michigan (4-2 overall) has won all three of its conference games this season and is tied with 24th-ranked Ball State in the crowded MAC West penthouse at 3-0. In other words, first play is on the line once again.
While much of the preseason hype (including a 30x60 foot billboard that appeared near Detroit's Ford Field this past summer) surrounded Chippewas' quarterback Dan LeFevour, the 2007 MAC Offensive Player of the Year, it has been another signal-caller that has been stealing the spotlight this season.
Broncos' junior quarterback Tim Hiller has been lighting up opposing offenses this season and tops the MAC with an impressive 23 touchdown passes while throwing only five interceptions on the season. Hiller's 23 touchdown tosses are second-best nationally behind only Tulsa quarterback David Johnson's 26 TD tosses.
Nobody has been more productive during conference play this season than Hiller who is averaging 282.5 yards passing per game in MAC play and his 296.2 yards of total offense per game also tops the league. Hiller is coming off two straight games of throwing four touchdowns, including last week's stunning 34-28 overtime win over Buffalo that earned him MAC Report Online's Offensive Player of the Week honors, a game in which Hiller threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and passed for the game winner in overtime.
Hiller's play hasn't gone unnoticed either by Central Michigan head coach Butch Jones.
"He is playing his best football right now," noted Jones. "Hiller has been outstanding and can really throw the deep ball, the intermediate ball, the short ball. He's in great command of their offense."
The primary beneficiary this season of Hiller's performances (or is it vice versa?) has been senior wide receiver Jamarko Simmons. Simmons is in the midst of his best season as well as a Bronco and is averaging better than eight catches per game in conference games and is second overall in the MAC averaging 83.4 yards per game.
"He (Simmons) is really their (WMU's) spark plug on offense," added Jones in assessing Simmons' play this season. "He does it all for them, from blocking to you name it."
Simmons should be a larger part of the game this season than last year, but not because of a lack of production.
In one of last season's most controversial on-field calls, Simmons was ejected early on in Western Michigan's 34-31 loss to Central Michigan for kicking an opposing player. At least that was the official explanation while others saw Simmons' sideline maneuver after being tackled as simply trying to free himself from the opposing player.
Either way, Simmons' absence had a big impact on last season's contest, but Broncos head coach Bill Cubit doesn't necessarily see that as a motivating factor heading into this year's clash.
"It was a tough loss for us, a great win for them," commented Cubit not wishing to dwell on last year's game. "It's over and done with and just move on to the next one."
While the Broncos' Hiller has been grabbing league-wide headlines, Cubit also knows that Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour remains a dangerous weapon in the Chippewas' offensive arsenal.
LeFevour tops the Chippewas in rushing and ranks right behind Hiller, averaging 280.2 yards of total offense this season. The dual-threat quarterback last season become only the second player in FBS history to record more than 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season.
"Last year by far he was the most productive player in the league," noted Cubit. "He can beat you with the run and the throw. It's going to be a tough challenge. He can beat you either way. We just have to stop the big play by him but that's not easy to do. If you stop him with the run he can beat you with the pass because he has two quality wide receivers."
LeFevour's top targets this year have been junior Bryan Anderson and sophomore Antonio Brown.
|CMU QB Dan LeFevour
Anderson is coming off his best performance of the season after snaring eight passes for 149 yards and a 37-yard touchdown in CMU's 24-14 win over Temple while Brown caught the other two touchdowns against the Owls in the Chippewas' victory. Combined, Anderson and Brown have already accounted for 669 yards receiving.
Also during last week's contest against Temple, LeFevour left the game early after suffering an ankle injury and did not return to action. Jones however indicates that LeFevour is healthy and could have returned in last week's game if he had been needed. With LeFevour out of the lineup in the second half, senior Brian Brunner took over and his 37-yard pass to Bryan Anderson accounted for the only touchdown of the second half.
While offensive fireworks have been commonplace, special teams play has also been key to both teams' successes so far this season.
Central Michigan's Brown ranks among the nation's leaders, averaging a MAC-best 22.6 yards per punt return while Broncos' running back Brandon West, in addition to sitting third in the MAC in rushing, averaging 90.4 yards per game, tops the conference in all-purpose yards with 147.9 yards per game.
It all adds up to what is potentially another offensively-charged nail-biter that will have a large impact on the final standings in a very tough MAC West, a division that Cubit, now in his fourth year as head coach, believes is the strongest at any time since he has been in the MAC.
"This is the best that I have seen," added Cubit. "I was in the league (as an assistant at WMU) before when Marshall and Toledo were pretty good and we went to the (title game) twice but top to bottom this is the best I have seen in this league and the West by far."
The Broncos own a 43-34-2 in the series but the Chippewas have won three of the last four games with the winning team scoring thirty or more points in five of the last six contests.
Hardware: As if the game didn't have enough on the line, from bragging rights to gaining an inside track on a MAC West title, there will also be some hardware on the line Saturday in Mt. Pleasant, including a brand-new trophy.
|The Brand New Rivalry Trophy
The "CMU-WMU Rivalry Trophy" will be awarded for the first time to the winner. The wooden trophy is brown on one side with Western Michigan's victories listed in the series while the other side is maroon with Central Michigan's wins in the series listed. A cannon sits atop the trophy, representing the cannon that is fired at both CMU's Kelly/Shorts Stadium and at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo.
The game Saturday is also the opening salvo of the round-robin competition for the Michigan MAC Trophy involving the MAC's three Michigan-based schools, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. Eastern Michigan won the trophy in 2007.
Maroon-Out = Sellout? The Chippewas are pushing hard to record the first sellout in Kelly/Shorts Stadium history. Central Michigan is promoting Saturday's game as a "Maroon Out," selling shirts specifically for the game. Kelly/Shorts Stadium seats 30,255. The all-time record for attendance at Kelly/Shorts is 30,027 set in 2006 in Central Michigan's 31-7 victory over the Broncos.