Central Michigan and Toledo enter Saturday's showdown separated by one game in the Mid-American Conference West Division standings. The Rockets (6-1 overall, 4-0 MAC) are the lone unbeaten remaining in conference play, while the Chippewas (4-3, 3-1) have strung together three consecutive wins for the first time since 2002.
With a defense that has allowed just two touchdowns in the past 10 quarters and an offense that posted 37 points against Ohio in its last outing, CMU enters its most important game of the season to date playing its best football.
"The kids know that this is a meaningful game for the conference championship," said second-year head coach Brian Kelly. "The game is going a long way toward putting someone in position for a championship. It's not a make-or-break game, but we can put ourselves in a great position with a win."
The spread offensive attacks of both Toledo and CMU have garnered most of the attention in recent history, but both clubs will bring underrated defensive units into Saturday's showdown. The Rockets (18.6 ppg.) and Chippewas (22.4 ppg.) rank first and second, respectively, in the MAC in scoring defense.
"Toledo has a new defensive coordinator in Tim Rose, who is a very accomplished coordinator," Kelly said. "They're going to give us a multitude of different looks, so we've used the bye week to try to become more familiar with their schemes."
CMU will counter Toledo's stout defense with an offensive attack that has taken care of the ball as well as anyone in the country. The Chippewas have turned the ball over just four times in seven games, tied for the fewest turnovers in the country, with just two of those turnovers coming on interceptions. The two interceptions are also tied for the fewest in Division I-A.
"I think it's a product of the quarterback more so than the system," Kelly said. "Kent Smith has been very careful with the football, maybe almost to a fault because he only has six touchdown passes. We're very detailed in the progressions and how the ball comes out. I think the system also plays a role because he's not in situations to make a lot of risky throws."
On the defensive side, junior end Daniel Bazuin enters Saturday's contest with eight sacks, just one off CMU's single-season record of nine. A member of the preseason watch lists for the Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award, Bazuin is also tied for fourth all-time at CMU with 17 career sacks. He collected a career-high three sacks against Ohio on Oct. 15.
"He's just consistent, play-in and play-out," Kelly said. "And it's not just on defense--he's our best special teams player. He works harder than anyone else and is truly the best player on our football team. His work habits are the same as how he approaches the game, which is relentless and consistent."
CMU closes out its three-game homestand on Nov. 5, hosting Northern Illinois at 1 p.m. The Chippewas close the regular season on the road, traveling to Western Michigan (Nov. 12) and Ball State (Nov. 19), with the finale at Ball State set to be televised on Comcast Sports Net Detroit.
Saturday's game against Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium has been selected as the MAC Television Game of the Week. The contest will be televised on FSN Ohio, Comcast Local, Comcast Sports Net Chicago, and Adelphia 13 (Buffalo). Michael Reghi (play-by-play) and Bob Chimel (color commentary) will call the game from the booth, while Brooke Weisbrod will report from the sidelines. With the addition of the Toledo game to the television schedule, the Chippewas will play in front of six live TV audiences in 2005.
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