Know Thy Enemy: Western Michigan - Do not sleep on the Broncos
Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes, from the eyes of the Spartans to the eyes of MSU football’s next foe. The State News asks the opposing team's student newspaper a few questions and see football through a different perspective.
Spartan fans can’t ignore the season Western Michigan had in 2016, not after MSU struggled to a 3-9 season. The Broncos posted a 13-1 mark, winning a Mid-American Conference, or MAC, title and earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl Classic against Wisconsin.
The toughest news of the offseason undoubtedly came when head coach P. J. Fleck left the Broncos for Big Ten country, taking the reigns at Minnesota. He would take his trademark phrase, “Row The Boat,” with him.
Now, the Broncos are under a new regime, head coach Tim Lester. And in the few opportunities fans have seen of his team, Western Michigan has impressed.
The 2016 MAC Champion wouldn’t go down without a fight on the road against then-No. 4 Southern California. It was all tied up at 28 in the fourth quarter until the Trojans pulled away right at the end.
To better understand life without Fleck and life with Lester, The State News interviewed Ross Hall, the sports editor for The Western Herald, and asked him five questions about the Broncos.
1. Western Michigan runs the ball similarly to MSU, namely that the Broncos have multiple backs who can play, changing up the pace of the game a bit. How much was that aspect of their game featured in the game against USC and what should Spartan fans expect in that regard?
A: When (Western) first signed its head coach, Tim Lester. He told us, “Guys, I’m a former math teacher, I go with the numbers and I’m going to run the ball a lot.” It’s sort of hard to stop Western’s offensive line and running backs from gaining just a few years on each run. And then each of the individuals, (LeVante) Bellamy, (Jarvion) Franklin and (Jamauri) Bogan, they all have the capability to take any run to the house. So expect a lot of running.
2. Jon Wassick obviously debuted for Western Michigan but definitely struggled in his first start. How did he look from your perspective and how much of the struggles can be attributed to first game jitters and youth?
A: I think that was a big factor, I think he was nervous, he had that jitters. It was his first start against USC, No. 4. He’s shown a few plays where he’s got a big arm, or he can move around a bit and make a run out of something. So he’s got legs as well. We had had a starting quarterback battle going on with him and Tom Flacco. Tom Flacco is mostly like a runner. Western went with Wassink just because he was more of a dual-threat. When Western has three running backs, that’s what they want. He’s going to be nervous and he’s got to start making some throws.
3. The talk about Western Michigan was that former head coach P. J. Fleck left for Minnesota. How has the team looked under new head coach Tim Lester and what’s the fan’s reaction to being under a new regime?
A: (Lester) played for Western in the 1990s and I think that was a big thing after P. J. left pretty suddenly. I think our Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard, I think she wanted someone who was a true Bronco who was going to make the guys safe and have their trust right away. Because he is a former Bronco himself. He’s also shown that he’s a great coach. The team loves him. I have to say, not relief, but excitement after P. J. left. It wasn’t anything but excitement. We lost “Row The Boat” but we were saying, "Let’s play next season, let’s see what happens." With a week one like we had, the excitement keeps building. So the students love Lester. The players, they definitely like playing for him.
4. How has the Broncos defense looked thus far? The Broncos collected a pair of interceptions on Heisman-hopeful Sam Darnold, but otherwise allowed quite a bit of points. Who should Spartan fans be looking out for when MSU has the ball?
A: Definitely the guy is Darius Phillips. He’s the special teams returner as well as our No. 1 (defensive back). He, I think, had three returns last year for touchdowns. He’s shown he can do it again. But that’s special teams, as well. Our defense played, we did okay, I thought against USC considering Sam Darnold, top quarterback didn’t throw a touchdown. That was something to look for. I think our strengths are in the defensive backs with Sam Beal, Justin Tranquill. ... They’re sort of our strengths. Darnold had a tough time getting rid of them. But our front seven doesn’t have as much playmaking ability as our DBs or like our offense does. We just struggle to sort of have key sacks or key stops. So it’s definitely a flawed defense, it has been.
5. The same thing kind of happened against USC as the MSU game from two years ago. The Broncos hung around, but at the end, the ranked team pulled away. I know Coach Tim Lester said fatigue caught up with Western there. From your perspective, what kind of happened there late allowing the Trojans to pull away?
A: Other than fatigue, fatigue was a big part of it, we looked tired out there, is our defense was putting their all against the No. 4 team. Which I think was tough for them. I think with our defense, we just didn’t make enough key plays, enough big stops that you need to win games. Like our offense can push the ball up the field, they’re going to control the ball. They have a lot of time on the clock. I think our defense needs to be the consistency. USC we just didn’t make enough plays on defense. I think that’s going to be something to look for.