First things first: Buster Bronco’s new look was met with a standing ovation:
A new Buster Bronco was revealed prior to tonight's game vs Idaho at Waldo Stadium. #LetsRide #WMU pic.twitter.com/nbFCRuwmFS— WMU Admissions (@WMUAdmissions) September 16, 2017
The Western Michigan Broncos and the Idaho Vandals squared off in front of a crowd of nervous Kalamazoo natives. Amidst a half-dozen Bronco injuries going into the game, Western Michigan walked away the victors. After the smoke cleared and the band died down, the final score was 37-28 in favor of the Broncos.
Western Michigan got the ball rolling offensively with a surprisingly potent passing game. Jon Wassink was able to toss for 212 yards and his first passing touchdown. Western Michigan played smart football by completing short, high-percentage passes. It was an effective scheme for marching downfield against the Vandals. There were missed opportunities as well. Giovanni Ricci failed to see a potential touchdown pass thrown his way. Another touchdown pass fell through D’Wayne Eskridge’s fingertips. (He redeemed himself the next play, but still.) The Bronco receiving corps has clearly been putting practice hours to very good use this week.
Most surprisingly of all, the Broncos seemed to forget that they are best at running the ball this year. It took a full quarter and a half for the Broncos to go back to the speedy Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. They tallied 44 and 47 yards, respectively. Bellamy zoomed in for a score in the third quarter as well. Jarvion Franklin was only able to produce eight yards, a far cry from his 211-yard effort the last time these two teams met. As mentioned earlier, injuries plagued the Broncos, especially in the normally excellent offensive line. combined, the Broncos achieved 135 rushing yards. Wassink was able to scramble well in the fourth quarter, earning 38 yards and two touchdowns along the way.
Touchdown @WMU_Football!!— #MACtion (@MACSports) September 17, 2017
We you @JonWassink12 #LetsRide #MACtion pic.twitter.com/hUIEHElGU6
Robert Spillane had a great day for Western Michigan, chasing down running backs Aaron Duckworth and Isaiah Saunders. Unfortunately, solid linebacker technique was for naught when they failed to tackle effectively. As predicted, Aaron Duckworth proved difficult to bring down, gaining 97 yards. One of those rushes went for a mind-boggling 74 yards. Unfortunately for the Vandals, Duckworth sustained a minor injury, giving Isaiah Saunders more playing time. Idaho finished with 170 rushing yards.
Darius Phillips and the gang hung tough with the receivers, except when it mattered most. Phillips also missed an open-field tackle, which led to a 60-yard gain for Idaho. Matt Linehan made them pay with 229 passing yards, mostly from wide-open receivers. However, Linehan face heavy pressure from the likes of Antonio Balabani and Robert Spillane. For the Vandals, Alfonso Onunwor did the most damage, catching for 93 yards and a score. Sam Beal managed to shine brightest for the Broncos, breaking up at least two critical passes.
Western Michigan’s Derrick Mitchell mistakenly kicked off out-of-bounds, giving Idaho prime field position. Josh Grant made three field goals and two of his three extra points for the Broncos. Idaho’s Cade Coffey intentionally kicked away from Darius Phillips, sacrificing field position for giving up touchdowns. Instead, a committee of Donnie Ernsberger, LeVante Bellamy, and DeShawn Foster returned kickoffs for the Broncos. Cade Coffey, who evidently has the best leg in all of Idaho, also punted away from Darius Phillips, electing to kick short. That did not stop Darius Phillips from earning a key 49-yard punt return in the third quarter. Who else would kick all four extra points for Idaho? Cade Coffey did.
Antonio Balabani got the momentum going for the Broncos, forcing a Matt Linehan sack-fumble, which was recovered by Ali Fayad for the Broncos. Josh Grant converted the turnover into a 27-yard field goal shortly afterward. Idaho responded two plays later with a five yard throw on the run from Matt Linehan to Joseph Wysocki. Idaho followed that up with a two yard touchdown pass from Linehan to David Ungerer, giving the Vandals a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. A long Bronco drive gave the defense a rest, ending in a 34-yard Josh Grant field goal. That led to a 14-6 halftime score in favor of the Vandals.
Each team came back from halftime with a rejuvenated defense. Jon Wassink led a charge downfield through the air, eventually connecting with D’Wayne Eskridge for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Tim Lester elected to take the easy extra point rather than try a risky two-point conversion, leaving the score 14-13 in favor of Idaho. An excellent Darius Phillips punt return put the Broncos in the redzone on the ensuing possession. LeVante Bellamy took the ball the remaining 19 yards for a touchdown. Matt Linehan fired back with a few long passes and a three-yard touchdown run for the Vandals. Western Michigan’s Giovanni Ricci fumbled late in the third quarter from a controversial helmet-to-helmet hit. Sedrick Thomas recovered the ball for the Vandals. Matt Linehan threw a 39-yard touchdown pass on the very next play to Alfonso Onunwor, extending the lead to 28-19.
Obbie Jackson intercepted Matt Linehan early in the final quarter, a much needed momentum boost. Jon Wassink’s improved air attack moved the Broncos downfield, but it was Wassink’s feet that zig-zagged 22 yards for a rushing touchdown. After forcing the Vandals to punt, Jon Wassink called his own number to cap off a long drive with a one yard touchdown. Giovanni Ricci completely fooled the Vandals defense for a Bronco two-point conversion. On Idaho’s next possession, Asantay Brown forced another Matt Linehan fumble, this time recovered by Stefan Claiborne. The Broncos controlled the clock on a long drive ending in a 29-yard Josh Grant field goal. That 37-28 advantage held for the Broncos until the final whistle.
Again this week, Western Michigan’s biggest negative factor was poor tackling. Broncos were able to contain the plays, but tried to arm-tackle instead of wrapping up. Western Michigan’s Obbie Jackson went all-in blocking a punt just before the half. He ran into the punter, surrendering great field position for the Broncos. Roughing the kicker was called on a Vandal extra point attempt in the third quarter, showing a lack of discipline for the Bronco defense. During the third quarter action, Chukwuma Okorafor and LeVante Bellamy each sustained minor injuries. They both returned, but they will have to be more careful next week to prevent further injury.
Western Michigan (1-2) will play the Wagner Seahawks next in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sep 23. Mid-American Conference action beings on Sep 30 for the Broncos when they host Ball State.