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2017 Week 1 Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ USC Trojans

Will the Broncos hold their own against Top-5 talent?

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan enters Los Angeles to take on the heavy favorite, the University of Southern California (USC). Tim Lester is tasked with coaching his Broncos past the notoriously smart USC Trojans team in his first game as the Broncos’ head coach. This game is the first meting overall between the two schools.

The Western Michigan Broncos are coming off of a red-hot 13-1 season and Cotton Bowl appearance. Western Michigan lost several notable starters over the summer, but still return key leaders. Robert Spillane leads the defense from his linebacker position, both morally and statistically. On offense, Jon Wassink is quickly making an impression on his team.

USC finished 10-3 and on a nine-game win streak. Clay Helton is in his second season as the Trojan head coach, and has already proven his mettle. The Trojans return some serious firepower in Ronald Jones II at running back and Deontay Burnett at receiver.

USC is led by their star quarterback, Sam Darnold, who took over the quarterback position mid-season against Utah. Although the Trojans lost that game, Darnold’s accurate arm led them to win the final nine games. Sam Darnold is dual-threat quarterback when flushed out of the pocket. Last year, he put up 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on 62 attempts. Those numbers are about what Zach Terrell put up last year, which is quite impressive.

When USC has the ball, expect the Bronco defense to rely on the experienced linebacker corps led by Robert Spillane. Their focus needs to be on keeping Sam Darnold under pressure and in the pocket. Despite their size, the Trojans are known more for their passing attack than for powerful running. Protecting against the rushing attack will probably be put on the nimble defensive line led by Andre Turner. The passing game will give Western Michigan fits all game long. Darius Phillips and the secondary will be tested all game long with USC’s quick passing attack. The entire secondary must play an extraordinary game to shut down the Trojans. If they can slow down the Trojan offense, Western Michigan will stand a good chance.

When Western Michigan has the ball, expect the Broncos to force the running game into working by any means possible. Tim Lester will probably test out his passing game with quick shots from Jon Wassink to D’Wayne Eskridge and Anton Curtis. I would not expect many trick plays like this, except in desperation:

To be honest, I expect very conservative play-calling by Tim Lester to figure out the Broncos’ strong suits against USC. The game might not have trick plays like that, but it will wear down the USC defense very effectively.

Special teams is another factor worth mentioning. Darius Phillips always has a hot hand when the ball gets near him. Every kickoff or punt could get taken back for a touchdown. On the other hand, the Broncos are using rookie kicker Josh Grant. From practices and scrimmages, he shows great promise, but has yet to be tested in a collegiate game. Michael Brown, a red-shirt freshman, does the kicking for USC. Like WMU’s Grant, Michael Brown looks good in practice, but has not been tested. Again mirroring Western Michigan, USC has a defensive back doing their kick/punt returns. However, this is Ajene Harris’ first year returning kicks, far from Darius Phillips’ experience. In this case, Western Michigan holds a slight advantage.

I expect USC to come out swinging and appear dominant in the first quarter. Western Michigan will take the first quarter figuring out their offense. By the second quarter, it will be a fair fight. By the fourth quarter, all bets are off and the fun begins. If either team leads big, they will both play relaxed and test out their offenses. If the game is still close, expect to see conservative gameplay.

My prediction: It hurts me dearly to write this: 48-39 USC. It will be a close game in the fourth quarter, but Western Michigan will be unable to erase USC’s first quarter lead. The teams will cover the over/under and Western Michigan will easily cover the spread. Also, the score will be something weird..... because MACtion.