MSU defense ready for an explosive Western Michigan offense
The MSU football team looks to ride its momentum from last week’s 35-10 season opening victory over Bowling Green into Saturday’s matchup against Western Michigan.
P.J. Fleck, the coach at the helm of the Broncos during their memorable run at history last season, left the program to fill the head coaching vacancy at Minnesota. Tim Lester then took over the head coaching position at Western Michigan for the 2017 season.
Lester’s debut last Saturday was one to remember.
The Broncos took on then-No. 4 USC, keeping the game closely fought until the Trojans made a decisive fourth-quarter run to win 49-31.
“I think it was impressive,” Dantonio said of WMU’s game against USC. “(They) had an opportunity to beat the No. 4 team in the country. I thought it was also impressive that they hung right there and had a chance to win in the Cotton Bowl (last season) and obviously what they were able to accomplish last year.
The Broncos return 15 starters from a team that went undefeated in the regular season in 2016, but no one stands out to MSU more than return man Darius Phillips.
In MSU’s last matchup against the Broncos in 2015, Phillips torched the Spartans’ special teams unit, fielding four kickoff returns for 185 yards, including one that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown.
“Well, you certainly understand that he's a factor in any football game, and so whether it's on punt or it's on kickoff, we have to work extremely hard to counteract what he's doing,” Dantonio said. “So that will be a challenge, and our guys will know what's going on. He was a virtual unknown to us on that particular day back in 2015. But, you know, we know who he is now, so we'll get ourselves ready.”
While the Broncos’ all-time leading passer in program history, Zach Terrell, graduated and left the program, WMU has now given the reins of the offense to redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink.
Last Saturday, Wassink, playing in his first collegiate game, was 11 of 22 for 67 yards.
“He played really well,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “I think he was really composed in his first game against such a high-ranking team and a defense that was playing pretty good. I just think that they made plays, especially from their running backs. So it’ll be interesting to see what he does this week.”
Similar to the Spartans, the Broncos’ ground game is a crucial part of WMU’s game plan.
Last week, the Broncos totaled 263 yards rushing, with sophomore LaVante Bellamy and junior Jamauri Bogan spearheading the rushing attack.
“They ran the ball 40 some times in the game (against USC), and they have three running backs that ran the ball extremely well,” Frey said. “So, as a linebacker and our linebacker corps, we’re really looking forward to this game because we’re going to be playing really fast downhill and (we’re going to) be able to make some plays on their side of the ball.”
Bellamy had nine carries for 102 yards, while Bogan rushed 15 times for 77 yards and recorded a touchdown.
“I think they do a good job running the football,” Dantonio said. “I think their guys run with power. You have three of them back there. All of them have experience. All of them have been productive. That's very similar to the guys that we have in that respect.”
With WMU’s change of coaches, quarterbacks and concepts, studying film is difficult for MSU.
“You don’t know if they’re going to use much of the stuff that they used last year from their film from last season with a new coaching staff, so there’s not much stuff for us to go off of,” Frey said. “There’s one game, so we’re going to continue to study that film and try to see what they did differently and try to master what they do.”
Although it is plausible the Broncos will pound the run game this weekend, freshman linebacker Antjuan Simmons said there is nothing the team needs to tweak defensively from Saturday’s win to adjust to WMU’s rushing attack.
“I don’t think we have to change anything systematically,” Simmons said. “I think there’s always room for improvement by just running faster, hitting harder and being more physical — being nastier — because every week, we got to get better and better because as time goes on, the teams are going to get better.”
The Spartans will face the Broncos at 3:40 p.m. at Spartan Stadium this Saturday. The game will also be the first time MSU will wear an all-white uniform and helmet combination at home.