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2018 Week 2 MAC Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Michigan Wolverines

Broncos’ defense must avoid 0-2 start for second-straight year.

Syracuse v Western Michigan Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

42-17.

That would have been the score, in Western Michigan’s favor, when comparing each team’s point totals from Week 1 defeats.

Notre Dame and Syracuse are clearly different opponents. Also, Western Michigan played in front of its home fans while Michigan struggled in a hostile road environment at Notre Dame. But there is one thing that’s clear: Michigan boasts an astute defense and Western Michigan owns an explosive, high-octane offense.

Reverse the sides of the ball, and those statements appear far from the truth.

Michigan’s offensive struggles have been well chronicled. Ever since Devin Gardner left the program, the Wolverines have been on an eternal search for a quarterback. Shane Morris, Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Brandon Peters are just several of the names that cycled through the turnstile before the Wolverines received a gift from Ole Miss.

Transfer quarterback Shea Patterson appeared to be the magic potion that would cure Michigan’s long-standing offensive woes, but it only took one week for Harbaugh’s Wolverines to see deja vu from last year. Patterson briefly checked out of the game with cramps in favor of sophomore Dylan McCaffrey, a member of one of the sport’s most prolific families.

The collective offensive result was 17 points. That number will likely increase in Week 2.

Whether Syracuse attacked from the air or the ground, Western Michigan’s defense struggled to stop anything from moving down field in Friday night’s opener. Dino Babers’ Orange posted 560 yards and 55 points on a rather inexperienced Broncos’ defense. Quarterback Eric Dungey meandered his way for 200 rushing yards, 184 passing yards, and three total touchdowns. The only flash of success the Broncos celebrated was the ability to stifle the running backs in the backfield, limiting Syracuse’s backs to 3.05 yards per carry.

As the two units will coincide with each other on the field, one of them will have to shed off the unfortunate label it received after a disappointing Week 1.

However, either Michigan’s relentless defense or Western Michigan’s dynamic offense will move down from its pedestal, as only one unit can emerge victorious from Saturday morning’s fight in Ann Arbor.

Players to Watch

Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan

Despite Michigan’s 17-point outing, Patterson nearly mounted a comeback effort. The Ole Miss transfer threw for 227 yards on 66.7% completions, leading an impressive scoring drive with under three minutes left. However, turnovers were a major issue and Patterson finished with one interception and the game-deciding fumble on the Wolverines’ last offensive stand. He’ll recover this week by facing a crew of Western Michigan cornerbacks who are looking to also amend their struggles from a week ago.

Devin Bush, ILB, Michigan

The junior is arguably the best inside linebacker in the FBS, and he’s already printing a deep footprint into opposing offenses in 2018. Bush finished Week 1 with 1.5 sacks on seven tackles, applying necessary pressure on Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush and forcing the Fighting Irish to average just 2.8 yards per run. He registered 5.5 sacks a season ago, aiming to increase the total against a Western Michigan front five that only allowed one sack versus Syracuse.

Chase Winovich, OLB, Michigan

Bush is gifted with a talented partner-in-crime lining up by his side. Winovich also thrives as a gifted pass rusher and backfield disrupter. He contributed three tackles for loss in the defeat at South Bend. A prototypical tackler, Winovich is the perfect complement to Bush in the linebacking corps. Western Michigan has a formidable running back duo of Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy, and those will be the players who Winovich will be closely watching on Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Jon Wassink, QB, Western Michigan

After just one data point into the 2018 season, it seems clear that Wassink has made a leap as a quarterback. He absolutely decimated his previous career-high with a 379-yard performance through the air against Syracuse, nearly landing all of his deep throws in the second half. Wassink looks much more poised in the pocket and remains a powerful and confident runner in short yardage situations. Accuracy is one of the few questions that lurks, as he barely completed over 50% of his passes in his junior debut.

LeVante Bellamy, RB, Western Michigan

Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan received plenty of love from Western Michigan faithful, but the Broncos have developed a running back who looks just as good as the other two. Bellamy has spent many games on the bench out with an injury, but the running back with 4.4 speed put on a quickness clinic last Friday. On just 11 touches, Bellamy dashed for 120 yards including a 64-yard sprint to the end zone in the third quarter to record his second touchdown of the evening. Michigan’s defense will serve as a difficult exam, but with John Keenoy and Co. blocking for him, Bellamy will have several chances to create big plays in Week 2.

D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Western Michigan

How can Eskridge follow his breakout performance on Friday night? The junior captured eight of Wassink’s passes, earned 240 receiving yards, and finished with a spectacular pair of touchdowns. It’s hard to find players on the field faster than Eskridge. He taught a lesson to the Syracuse secondary by igniting the burners and catching Wassink’s heave for an 84-yard score in the opener. The level of the opposing secondary cranks up this Saturday, though. Eskridge will probably be in a rough battle with Michigan cornerback David Long all game, attempting to even replicate half of his Week 1 production against the Wolverines’ star-studded defense.

Keys to the Game

Michigan wins if the Wolverines can put together any semblance of an offense. Last year, Michigan scored 20-or-fewer points in all five of its losses. Harbaugh’s team does not typically fall in 55-42 fashion, as Western Michigan previously did at Waldo Stadium. Patterson must establish the passing game early and keep the Broncos’ defense on its toes all game, as Syracuse did. It’s tough to go in and win in Ann Arbor, so Michigan has the Big House on its side in what should be its first victory of the year.

Western Michigan wins if several variables play in its favor. This game isn’t un-winnable for the Broncos, but it won’t be a walk in the park at all. First, turnovers must be forced early and often. Western Michigan can’t afford to sleepwalk through the first half as it did against Syracuse, trailing 34-7 entering the break. The Broncos must go for the Eskridge deep balls and pave the way for long Bellamy runs early to create a lead. Western Michigan optimizes its chances if it copies the way it played in the third quarter last week and pastes that performance in Saturday’s first half.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 8, 12:00 p.m. EST

Network: FS1

Venue: Michigan Stadium (107,601) — Ann Arbor, MI

Spread: Michigan (-28)

ESPN FPI Predictor: Michigan has 95.3% chance to win

Series history: Michigan leads series, 6-0

The Wolverines and Broncos have collided four times this millennium, last meeting in Brady Hoke’s first season at the helm in 2011. Michigan has escaped with a victory of three possessions or greater after each meeting since the first one in 1917. With the luxury of owning the largest stadium in all of college football, the Wolverines don’t travel too often for non-conference play, so it’s no surprise the series has ever shifted to Kalamazoo.

Prediction

No surprises here. Michigan wins handily against Western Michigan, but I do like the Broncos to cover the spread. Given the dominance of the Wolverines’ defense, it will be interesting to see how different Wassink and the Western Michigan offense look when facing one of the country’s elite units. Western Michigan won’t achieve a respectable lead early on, but the Broncos should be able to keep this one within three touchdowns at the Big House, thanks to Michigan offensive miscues and the triple threat of Wassink-Bellamy-Eskridge.

Prediction: Michigan 34, Western Michigan 16