2018 RECORD: 7-6 overall (5-3 in MAC play)
HEAD COACH: Tim Lester (second season)
2019 PRESEASON POLL: Second Place Western Division
A 7-5 regular season record was good enough to get the Western Michigan Broncos to a bowl game last year, but Bronco players, coaches and fans can’t help but think that 2018 was only a peak at possibilities for even better 2019 success.
Toledo may have the preseason media poll’s nod to win the west, but WMU enters 2019 as . . .
The Broncos had run off six straight wins before quarterback Jon Wassink got injured against Toledo last October. Without the talented junior, Western lost four of its final five outings.
Here’s more on the Broncos . . .
Scoring offense: 32.0 ppg (4th MAC)
Scoring defense: 34.5 ppg (10th MAC)
Total offense: 436.8 ypg (3rd MAC)
Total defense: 386.6 ypg (6th MAC)
Turnover margin: plus 1 (6th MAC)
➤➤ The Broncos’ scoring dropped off by more than 11 points after Wassink was injured. While they are planning on the now-senior QB making it through this season, Lester sees WMU as more prepared for any 2019 bumps in the road. Sophomore Kaleb Eleby gained valuable experience last year, while former Illinois QB Alex Mussat is also in the wings.
➤➤ Wassink completed 151 of 245 attempts (61.6%) for 1,994 yards with 16 TDs and six interceptions. He was sacked just four times.
Eleby completed 92 of 147 (62.6%), but he tossed four touchdowns against three interceptions and was sacked 16 times.
➤➤ The Broncos are also loaded with receivers. Among the returning targets are Jayden Reed (56 receptions, 797 yards, 8 TDs), D’Wayne Eskridge (38 catches, 776 yards, 3 TDs), and tight end Geiovanni Ricci (35 catches, 392 yards, 3 TDs).
➤➤ Senior Levante Bellamy returns after leading WMU rushing with 205 carries for 1,228 yards and six scores last year. Coming off First Team All-MAC honors, Bellamy stands to again be one of the league’s top performers in 2019. “We’ve got to get the ball in his hands in different ways,” Lester said.
➤➤ Be it pass or run, WMU benefits from an experienced and talented line. Three starters return. Luke Juriga was a First Team All-MAC member last year as a guard, but may move over to center for his senior campaign. Juniors Mike Caliendo and Jaylon Moore return to protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Of course, the protection seemed to fare much better when Wassink was at quarterback. He was sacked just four times in eight-plus games, while his replacement went down 16 times in five contests. Eleven of those came over two games - against Northern Illinois and Toledo -- both of which will be strong West Division contenders again this season.
➤➤ Like the offense, Western Michigan’s defense is aggressive by nature. That has its good and bad points. The Broncos recorded 32 sacks - fourth best among MAC teams. However, Western was last in pass defense efficiency.
➤➤ Eight starters return on defense, with two seniors figuring among the starting linebackers and another in the wings. Ali Fayad and Antonio Balabani are returning bookends up front. “We have maybe eight or nine defensive linemen (that) we’re going to rotate through there.” -- Coach Lester
➤➤ CB Stefan Claiborne (Sr), as well as safties A.J. Thomas (Jr) and Justin Tranquill (Sr), are back. Standout receiver D’Wayne Eskridge (Sr), meanwhile, is part of a plan to upgrade the defense. “I’m guessing (he’ll play) 10-15 (snaps) a game on offense. The rest will be playing defense,” Lester noted.
➤➤ Despite the Broncos offensive firepower, Lester sees defense as a key. “I’m really excited to watch that group, because I think (defense) is the key to winning the MAC West. We made a lot of changes on defense, and we have a lot of depth and seniors.”
➤➤ The Broncos should be putting plenty of points on the board.That should keep sophomore Gavin Peddie busy with PATs. While he made 10 of 13 field goals last year, he will be working on consistency as three misses were inside the 40. Nick Mihalic, also a sophomore, will try to move WMU up the MAC punting rankings after Western finished 11th in 2018.
➤➤ WMU led the league in punt return average (21.4 yards per return). Toledo was next at 13.2 ypr. However, the Broncos were 11th on kickoff returns (15.8 ypr).
➤➤ The Broncos averaged 199.5 ypg rushing the football in 2018 (3rd MAC).
➤➤ Western Michigan topped the MAC in time of possession (33:36) and third in least penalties (77).
➤➤ WMU will face two of its non-conference foes from 2018 this year. It lost ;to Syracuse 55-47 in the opener and defeated Georgia State 34-15.
➤➤ Western defeated its first three MAC opponents by a combined 11 points. It also downed Northern Illinois by seven in the regular season finale. The only double-digit MAC win was 35-10 at Central Michigan.
➤➤ WMU will need to be tough on the road as it travels to Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Ohio and Northern Illinois in conference play.
“We’ve got to be good on the road, (but) we’ve got a veteran team to do that.” -- Coach Lester
With ten starters returning on defense and eight on offense, the Broncos are a very dangerous opponent that is certainly capable at making a run in the West.
Wassink, Bellamy and a talented group of receivers can keep defensive coordinators up at night. However, the defense must step up a rung or two if Western is to reach the top of the ladder.