Imagine hearing before the game that Western Michigan would drop 42 points on Syracuse in its hometown of Kalamazoo. That sounds like a strong Power Five win to start the season. Unfortunately, the defense allowed 55 points in a double-digit loss during Friday night’s shootout against the Orange.
As season two of the Tim Lester era begins, we learned a lot about this 2018 Western Michigan team during the four-hour spectacle, and what could possible be in store for the Broncos down the line.
The Western Michigan defense was horrendous
There’s no sugarcoating it.
Giving up 55 points is bad. Giving up 55 points at home is worse. And giving up 55 points at home to a team that hasn’t been ranked since 2001 and is coming off of its third-straight 4-8 season is frankly unacceptable.
Now, Syracuse appears to be a program on the rise in Dino Babers’ third season. I could see the Orange, with their potent offense, enjoy a breakout season similar to the year Purdue constructed last fall. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey may be the most talented at his position in the conference, but this is still a team that averaged 27.4 points per game last year.
Western Michigan allowed Dungey to dash for 200 rushing yards, the new single game record for an ACC quarterback. Missed tackles at the line of scrimmage and the inability to shed off blocks allowed Dungey to roam free like a gazelle in an open grassland on 15 carries.
Through the air, Western Michigan held Dungey and Tommy DeVito to completing just 12-of-29 passes. Even without cornerback Sam Beal manning the secondary, this sounds impressive. But when the Orange quarterbacks connected, they were lethal. The Broncos yielded 18.8 yards per completion, often allowing Syracuse to maneuver down the field in a timely manner. Babers’ team did not finish with a single scoring drive with greater than eight plays because of its knack for creating 20+ yard plays.
Western Michigan’s home-run offense has dangerous potential
Western Michigan’s offense scored seven points in the first half. In the second half, the Broncos absolutely balled out, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited about the potential of this unit.
Presently healthy and more experienced, quarterback Jon Wassink already looks noticeably improved, especially with his pinpoint deep throws. In his ninth start as a Bronco, the 6’2” quarterback shattered his personal high of 256 yards with a 379-yard outing. Wassink ended the night with three touchdowns and two interceptions, both tipped passes off of intended receivers’ hands.
LeVante Bellamy performed tremendously, as well. The junior running back with 4.4 speed sprinted for 120 yards on just 11 carries, hitting pay dirt on a 7-yard run in the first quarter and a crucial 64-yard run during Western Michigan’s second half comeback effort.
Dear Syracuse,— WMU Football (@WMU_Football) September 1, 2018
You aren't catching LeVante Bellamy. 64 yards to the #LetsRide
CBS Sports Network >> https://t.co/aclo8HBdVe pic.twitter.com/xpoXMgd8i6
Jamauri Bogan, Bellamy’s counterpart, only saw daylight on one run — a 59-yarder to set up Bellamy’s initial score. But that was yet another explosive play for Western Michigan, which created nine plays of greater than 20 yards and three plays of greater than 50.
It seemed that Western Michigan was capable of scoring on every offensive play in the second half because of Wassink’s beautiful deep throws and Bellamy’s ability to find a hole in the trenches and blaze through it.
Broncos have finally found their Corey Davis replacement
The chief recipient of Wassink’s deep throws was junior wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge. Eskridge led the Broncos with 506 receiving yards a year ago, but he’s already over 47% of the way to that mark in 2018.
His 240 receiving yard ranks as the 12th most in MAC history and for his university, it only trails Corey Davis’ 272-yard day against Ball State in 2016.
Bellamy’s speed was dangerous in the backfield, and Eskridge outran the Syracuse cornerbacks in a similar manner. His most spectacular play of the night was burning the Orange defenders for an 84-yard touchdown in the middle of the third quarter. It was one of his two third quarter scores, with the other one occurring one minute into the half on a 21-yard throw from Wassink.
LOOK OUT! Here come the Broncos.@WMU_Football connects on the deep ball to tack on seven more. pic.twitter.com/mQUjU4vDMo— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) September 1, 2018
Eskridge’s development and blistering speed will definitely allow the Broncos’ to improve in the passing game this year. The team had to replace all three of its starters a year ago, but it looks like Lester finally found a reliable No. 1 receiver in the Bluffton, IN native. The breakout star will test his abilities against a talented Michigan secondary in Ann Arbor next Saturday.
Tall, strong receivers could be the bane of WMU’s existence
While Eskridge was shredding apart defenders on streak patterns, Western Michigan’s secondary was struggling with stopping a different receiver. Syracuse’s Jamal Custis is a 6’5”, 213-pound wideout with similar speed to Eskridge’s. Basically, he’s the prototype of a receiver you’d create on NCAA 14.
Custis’ marvelous evening concluded with six catches, 168 yards, and two touchdowns. No corner or safety on the Broncos’ defense could stop him regardless of the route. Custis out-leaped Western Michigan on jump balls, he outran Western Michigan on vertical routes, and he utilized his strength to rip the pigskin away from defenders on 50-50 throws.
Custis was an absolute monster and is a rare specimen of a college football player, but Western Michigan could struggle with receivers of similar build to him. Even star strong safety Justin Tranquill, who stands 5’11”, struggled preventing the ball from entering Custis’ hands on the first possession of the night.
The receiver’s highlight at Waldo Stadium occurred on a great momentum-shifting play. When Western Michigan closed the gap to six points, Custis reached out and snatched the ball with one hand, before juking defenders and landing in the end zone for a 41-28 lead.
Jamal Custis, ARE YOU SERIOUS? pic.twitter.com/xHDLdpCPKU— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 1, 2018
Other factors which prevented WMU from the win
Western Michigan’s juggernaut of an offense was strong enough to nearly erase a 34-7 halftime deficit. The problem though, was a 34-7 halftime deficit.
Slow starts cannot afford to happen. Western Michigan was playing a more conservative brand of offense in the opening half, not targeting deep balls in favor of short check down throws. Syracuse had no issue stopping the home team throughout the first 30 minutes, and Western Michigan cannot afford to play from behind by three touchdowns in future games. The halftime adjustments must become pregame adjustments.
One key play that deserves recognition was a certain 3rd-and-8 in the middle of the third quarter. After three-consecutive Western Michigan touchdowns, the Broncos committed an absolutely undisciplined penalty that destroyed all of the momentum. On that third down, the Broncos defense swallowed up Dungey in the backfield, forcing him to take a great sack or throw the ball away. Prior to the throwaway, Western Michigan grabbed his facemask, bailing the Orange out for a fresh set of downs, which resulted in the aforementioned Custis touchdown.
Had this personal foul not occurred, Syracuse would have likely sent out the punting unit and Western Michigan would have taken over down 34-28. The Broncos would not start a single possession down by one possession for the rest of the evening.