First-year head coach Tim Lester collected his first win with the Western Michigan Broncos last week in the home opener against Idaho.
It’s a small accomplishment but necessary when taking the right steps towards moving on from P.J. Fleck, now with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who took WMU to the 2017 Cotton Bowl after winning the Mid-American Conference Championship in Detroit.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jon Wassink threw for a career-high 212 yards passing and three touchdowns in the 37-28 win at Waldo Stadium. His first scoring throw of his career was to sophomore WR D’Wayne Eskridge from 15 yards out.
Say what you want about the Vandals, known for appearing in just three bowl games since 1998, but the last occurred this past season, claiming the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl over the Colorado State Rams.
Lester last coached against the Seahawks in 2013, when he was head of the Syracuse Orange quarterbacks, winning 54-0.
This will be the first time in program history that Wagner has played a Mid-American Conference opponent. The college went 6-5 in 2016, losing 42-10 in its only game against an FBS team, the Boston College Eagles, on the road.
When Western Michigan Has The Ball
The Broncos are still reeling from the fallout of losing four-year starter Zach Terrell, who finished with 12,104 career passing yards and 96 touchdown passes, the latter of which is second-most in program history.
That’s left Wassink as the successor, who did not record a touchdown in the first two games of the season, both of which ended in losses to the USC Trojans and Michigan State Spartans. His 135.8 quarterback rating against Idaho was over double than what he recorded beforehand.
As a three-star recruit from Grand Rapid Christian High School, Wassink totaled over 2,000 yards and 34 touchdowns his senior year.
With other undergraduates on the depth chart such as freshman Reece Goddard and redshirt sophomore Alex Mussat, having a dynamic trio at the running back position certainly takes the pressure off of replicating what Terrell achieved.
Jamauri Bogan, who missed six games in 2016, entered this season in full health and has ran for 154 yards on 43 carries the previous three games. Currently ranked sixth in program history with 24 career touchdowns, the junior recorded a touchdown and 77 yards rushing at USC.
As the WMU all-time leading rusher with 41 touchdowns, Jarvion Franklin has yet to break out like he did in 2016, when he averaged 5.5 yards a carry, totaling 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The senior has carried the ball 28 times this season, totaling 84 yards.
LeVante Bellamy’s 19-yard rushing touchdown run against Idaho was his first this season. After missing out the remainder of 2016 following the Illinois game, the sophomore ran for over 100 yards at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
When Wagner Has The Ball
After opening the regular-season with a 30-point win over Division II Saint Anselm, Wagner began Northeast Conference play with a 25-point loss to defending NEC champion Saint Francis U.
Junior quarterback Luke Massei has thrown for 241 yards on 23-of-35 passing and two interceptions. Junior running back Ryan Fulse is the main attraction for the Seahawks offense, rushing for 251 yards on 41 attempts and three touchdowns.
Massei’s favorite receiver, junior D’Erren Wilson, has caught 15 receptions for 182 yards.
Wagner’s history against FBS opponents is small but forgettable, having gone 0-7 since 2012. The closest the team came to an upset was against Florida Atlantic that same year, by a final score of 7-3. Jason Houghtaling, the third youngest head coach in the FCS, is currently in his third-year at Wagner.
The Broncos begin their MAC schedule at home against Ball State on Sept. 30. They finished undefeated in league play this past season.
Games like these are a perfect opportunity for Western Michigan and Lester to examine the reserves, especially at quarterback. Expect players like Goddard and Mussat to get a shot under center.
Outside of the two units, special teams continue to be a bright spot with senior Darius Phillips stellar in returns. Earning the 2016 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year award, the safety has four kick returns for a touchdown in his career.
There’s no reason why Phillips can’t shine in front of the home crowd. This is also the same WMU team that trailed the Trojans by four with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Even with a new head coach, the toughness and dedication to excellence hasn’t left the Western Michigan culture. Expect a comfortable win this weekend.
Prediction: Western Michigan 31, Wagner 10