Tim Lester will see a familiar face on the opposite sideline Saturday when his Western Michigan Broncos host their conference opener at Waldo Stadium against the Ball State Cardinals.
Lester, who took over as head coach this season following the departure of P.J. Fleck, does battle with Mike Neu, who’s in his second season with BSU. The relationship between the two dates back over a decade, when Lester was quarterback of the Arena Football League's Carolina Cobras.
Neu, who’s coaching career began in 1994 as a graduate assistant of the Cardinals, signed Lester before the 2001 season when he was in charge of the indoor professional team. Neu went back to college football after spending eight combined years within the New Orleans Voodoo and New Orleans Saints from 2004-11.
Western Michigan, the reigning Mid-American Conference champions, is seeking its third straight win this year after the team opened up with losses against No. 4 Southern Cal (49-31) and in-state foe Michigan State (28-14).
In their third consecutive home game, the Broncos knocked off FCS Wagner and Idaho with no issue, winning by a combined scoring margin of 43 points.
The Cardinals did not win a single league game last season, garnering five losses in route to a 3-9 campaign. In the two losses against Big Ten opponent Illinois and Western Kentucky, BSU had a lead going into the remaining five minutes of regulation.
First-year defensive coordinator Tim Daoust of WMU held the same position for Ball State last year. He was previously the defensive line coach and special teams coordinator for Syracuse from 2011-15.
When Western Michigan Has The Ball
It’s now Jon Wassink’s time to run the offense.
After four consecutive years with Zach Terrell at the helm, Wassink has solidified himself as the top option moving forward for WMU. In four games as the starter, the redshirt sophomore has thrown for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
Three of those scores came last week against Wagner, finished 11-of-22 passing for 144 yards. A quiet outing, yet asking for much out of him isn’t needed, with the ground game as solid as ever.
LeVante Bellamy returns to form the three-headed monster at the running back position after missing most of last year due to injury. Jarvion Franklin entered this year as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns for Western Michigan and Jamauri Bogan looks to get back to his 2015 form, when he totaled over 1,000 yards.
WMU finished with 362 yards last week with Franklin and Bogan each surpassing the 100-yard mark.
Senior cornerback Darius Phillips will be a concern for BSU on special teams. In this season alone, he’s returned kickoffs for a touchdown against both USC and Michigan State. Phillips is the FBS active leader for career kickoff return yards with 2,859 and 13th all-time.
When Ball State Has The Ball
Last week against Western Kentucky saw quarterback Jack Milas get his first start this season, replacing Riley Neal who’s recovering from a leg injury. Milas, the senior, completed 50 percent of his passes for 267 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Star Press reported this week that Neal’s probability for the remainder of the season is up in the air. Milas has started 11 games in his career while Neal has 23 in his pocket over the last two years.
The running back corp for Ball State almost mirrors the production of the Bronco’s group, with Malik Dunner leading the team with five touchdowns. Caleb Huntley has garnered 226 yards and James Gilbert is close behind with 206.
The trio have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns so far and average 167 yards on the ground per game.
BSU’s red zone unit has outperformed almost every other conference program, ranked second in the MAC with 14 touchdowns scored within the 20-yard line and second in touchdown percentage with 82.7.
Where: Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
When: 7:00 p.m. on Sat., Sept. 30
TV/streaming: ESPN3, the WatchESPN app and the ESPN App. Check your local cable provider for more information.
Notes: The Broncos have won their last three meetings against Ball State and lead the all-time series, 24-19. WMU defeated the Cardinals by 32 points last season in Muncie, Indiana, and rolled through heavily in Kalamazoo in 2015 by a 54-7 score.
Expect a defensive struggle.
The two teams have combined for 715 yards of total offense this season and have allowed nearly as much on defense. Ball State is ranked fourth in the conference in offense yardage per game with 398.
Western Michigan averaged 43 points in the two wins over Wagner and Idaho and racked up 527 yards of offense against the Seahawks last week.
The Broncos certainly aren’t the same team from last year, but having grudge matches in East Lansing and at the Los Angeles Coliseum shows that not only will they be a perennial contender as league play commences, but home wins will be more attainable for them in comparison to other programs.
Ball State hasn’t appeared in a bowl game in four years. That’s not to say that another thee win season is the expectation, but having to play the higher-up teams in the MAC West Division on the road is a daunting task.
Wassink will get his fifth touchdown on the season while Phillips continues to make his mark on the return game. The Broncos open their conference schedule on positive note.
Score: Western Michigan 31, Ball State 21