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2019 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl Preview: Western Michigan Broncos vs. WKU Hilltoppers

Western Michigan looks to send Jon Wassink, LeVante Bellamy, and others out on a high note and win its first bowl game since 2015.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Western Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Western Michigan is bowling in the Dallas metroplex once more. With a star-studded senior class flying in from Kalamazoo, the Broncos are on a mission to win their second-ever bowl game and their first since 2015.

The Broncos (7-5) face a revamped Western Kentucky program. Under first year head coach Tyson Helton, the Hilltoppers improved by five wins and clinched their first winning record since Jeff Brohm’s final season at the helm in 2016.

The SERVPRO First Responder Bowl has plenty of former names — the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and the TicketCity Bowl — but this will be the first contest under the new name due to a bizarre scenario in 2018.

The prior year’s First Responder Bowl doesn’t even have a place in the record books. The game was the first-ever bowl game canceled after kickoff and was ruled “no contest” due to severe lightning. Boston College led Boise State 7-0 with 5:08 remaining in the first quarter, but hours of weather delays shockingly prevented the matchup from ever resuming. It’s a redemption year for the bowl game, which happily hosts two programs experiencing strong bounce-back seasons.

For the first time, the bowl will transpire at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, opposed to the typically-occupied stadium known as the Cotton Bowl. This transfer of stadiums is due to preparation for the NHL Winter Classic in Dallas as the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators battle outdoors at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Western Michigan Broncos

Western Michigan’s senior class is definitely a significant one in program history. This is the final stand for many players on the Broncos roster who participated in the 2016 MAC Championship, qualified for the Cotton Bowl, and posted a program-best 13-1 record. Now that group receives an opportunity to finish some storied Bronco careers in victorious fashion.

LeVante Bellamy is on his farewell tour. The star of the offense, Bellamy is tied for the lead in college football rushing touchdowns with 23 this season. He ranks 11th nationally with 1,412 rushing yards and an opportunity to improve upon his standing in Dallas. Bellamy is a long-range running back, in the sense he can strike from anywhere. With nine of his 23 touchdowns of greater than 35 yards, Bellamy enters the First Responder Bowl as the game’s most electric player. He is 257 yards from shattering the single-season Western Michigan rushing record and 12 rushing yards away from surpassing Brandon West (2006-09) for third all-time in program history.

Bellamy has been nursing a knee injury recently, but he’s played banged up several times this year. If he’s not at full strength, Western Michigan may elect to run the offense through Davon Tucker (386 rushing yards) and Sean Tyler (327 rushing yards) instead.

The showdown in Dallas also marks the end of Jon Wassink’s three-year ride as the starting quarterback. After suffering season-ending injuries in October 2017 and October 2018, Wassink will lead Western Michigan in his first bowl game Monday. The senior is closing in on a 3,000-yard passing season, sitting just 96 yards away from the benchmark. Wassink also aims to increase his output of 19 passing touchdowns this season and continue to serve as a factor in the running game. The quarterback has participated in 29 games at Western Michigan, but 29.9% of his career rushing yards have been logged in his last three games.

Another key senior in his final game is tight end Giovanni Ricci. The John Mackey Award semifinalist is ninth in the country in both receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. He’s reliable in short yardage situations and also the Broncos’ optimal red zone threat. With eight receiving touchdowns, Ricci ranks first on the team in the category and third overall among FBS tight ends.

Western Michigan strong base of skill position players also extends to wide receiver. The Broncos’ Skyy Moore rose as one of the stars of midweek #MACtion in 2019, attaining 287 receiving yards in his final two regular season games. Keith Mixon Jr., a Mississippi State transfer, leads the team with 48 receptions and provides an element of quickness on screen passes and in the return game.

Defensively, Western Michigan wavers in gameplay week-to-week. The Broncos generally improved throughout the season after early season debacles against Michigan State and Syracuse (103 combined points allowed), but held the offenses of Georgia State, Miami (OH), and Northern Illinois to under 20 points.

The Broncos feature the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in Treshaun Hayward. In a breakout junior season, Hayward generated 132 tackles (5th in FBS), 11 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks as the heart of the defense. Joining Hayward in the corps is senior outside linebacker Drake Spears, looking to make his final stand. Spears has produced 88 tackles and two interceptions this season and stars as one of Western Michigan’s best coverage players from the linebacker position.

In the secondary, Justin Tranquill notably enters his final game. Through three ACL tears and an injury-riddled college career, the strong safety has persevered through it all. Tranquill sits just behind Hayward and Spears on Western Michigan’s tackling chart with 76 wrap-ups. Additionally, the longtime safety — a 2016 Cotton Bowl starter — holds 2.5 tackles for loss, a pair of interceptions, and a forced fumble to his name this season.

WKU Hilltoppers

WKU surprised the C-USA this year by nearly contending for a conference championship. After a concerning loss to Central Arkansas of the FCS on Week 1, the Hilltoppers quickly righted the ship and won eight of their last 11 games, including a 6-2 standing against league opponents.

With Arkansas transfer Ty Storey at quarterback, WKU fared 7-2 and Storey benefitted greatly from the change in atmosphere. He played well under Coach Helton, a former quarterback turned quarterback guru coach, completing 70.1% of his passes for 2,209 yards this season. Storey delivered 12 touchdowns and five interceptions and even got to light up his former program in the process. He stormed into Fayetteville and guided the offense to a 45-19 shellacking of Arkansas in a mistake-free day from the pocket.

Similar to Western Michigan, WKU bases its offense on the abilities of a star running back Gaej Walker. In his first active collegiate season, Walker currently owns 1,115 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to go along with 20 receptions. The junior surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark in half of his regular season games this season and finished with a 119-yard outburst in his most recent performance against Middle Tennessee.

WKU’s most frequented wide receiver is longtime standout Lucky Jackson. A four-year major contributor, Jackson holds a career-high 985 receiving yards this season and is likely one or two receptions away from breaking the century barrier against Western Michigan’s 66th ranked pass defense.

In the defensive department, the Hilltoppers are hard to beat. WKU ranks 40th in stopping the run and 30th in limiting the pass — good for an overall top 30 defense in the FBS. WKU allows 20.1 points per contest and held Southern Miss, Charlotte, Army, FIU, among others, to 14 or fewer points this year.

All-C-USA selection DeAngelo Malone poses a threat from the weak-side defensive end slot. The conference’s Defensive Player of the Year recorded 11 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss (5th in FBS) in his first 12 matchups. His 90 total tackles are the most of any defensive lineman in college football, and he’ll serve as a key cog to stopping Bellamy and Western Michigan’s explosive run game.

In the secondary, WKU counters Western Michigan’s offense with strong safety Devon Key. Third on the team in tackles, Key has broken up seven passes this season and serves effectively in deep zone coverage. He leads the secondary in allowing just 200.2 passing yards per game this season, a number well below Western Michigan’s 244.6 aerial yards average.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Monday, December 30 at 12:30 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN

Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium — Dallas, TX

Spread: WKU (-3)

ESPN FPI: Western Michigan has 55.7% chance to win

All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 11-3-1

Last matchup: Western Michigan 38, WKU 0 — November 1, 1947

Believe it or not, Western Michigan and Western Kentucky used to frequently settle things on the field, back in the leather helmet days of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The teams met 15 times in a 25-year span from 1923-47 with the Hilltoppers only emerging victorious three times from 1938-40. Six Broncos-Hilltoppers games have been shutouts, seven, if you include the 0-0 tie on November 27, 1930. This will be the first time these programs meet with modernized football equipment, and the college football landscape looks fairly different for the long awaited rematch.

Prediction

If you’re participating in any bowl mania challenge, scoring this one above 10 points with confidence is tough. Neither team is clearly better than the other. Western Michigan exhibits a more explosive offense with fantastic playmakers like Bellamy, Wassink, and Ricci, but the Hilltopper defense has shined all year at brutalizing talented offenses, especially in the Southern Miss game. Meanwhile, Western Michigan’s defense suffers from lapses time-to-time, and a strong rushing attack from Gaej Walker could cause problems for the Broncos. With a strong Broncos contingent participating in their last game, I’ll pick Bellamy to win it for Western Michigan in a close one.

Prediction: Western Michigan 31, WKU 27