It seems so long since Western Michigan played the role of Group of Five’s gold standard program. The Broncos were on top of the world in 2016 as one of two teams to enter bowl season undefeated. Despite a hiccup in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin, the Broncos still stood strong, garnering more brand recognition and national attention than ever. Kalamazoo even hosted College GameDay, a feat only one other MAC school can claim.
P.J. Fleck then bolted to an unexpected opening at Minnesota, but the Broncos’ span of success hadn’t run out of steam yet. “Row the Boat” may have subsided, but the winning culture looked poised to flourish.
Former Western Michigan quarterback Tim Lester took the keys to the program and nearly shocked America in his coaching debut. Battling Sam Darnold and a No. 4 USC team fresh off a Rose Bowl victory, Western Michigan entered the fourth quarter at the Coliseum with the game deadlocked at 21. After a Stephen Carr touchdown run with around eight minutes left, Darius Phillips responded by leaving Trojan defenders in the dust on a 100-yard kickoff return to tie the score. And then, Western Michigan’s most prosperous era suddenly ceased.
USC finished off the Broncos with a 21-3 scoring run in the game’s final seven minutes, and then the Broncos were stifled by Michigan State the following week. Western Michigan regressed quickly afterward from MAC contenders to a 6-6 team with no bowl invitation. Much of the same was seen in 2018.
Once again, a season opened with two quality Power Five opponents (Syracuse and Michigan), and the Broncos were unable to stop either from running up the scoreboard. After a 6-game win streak which featured one team with a winning record in 2018, Western Michigan dropped four of its last five, including a 49-18 debacle versus BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Western Michigan posted 1-3 November records in back-to-back years, but there has been an unfortunate reason for these subpar finishes — injuries. Quarterback Jon Wassink has yet to finish a season due to a collarbone injury in 2017 and right ankle injury in 2018. Other key contributors have been unable to finish seasons as well, causing Western Michigan to scramble deep into the depth chart once November arrives.
Despite these grueling finishes, the Broncos still haven’t finished under .500 since 2013. With a wide-open MAC heading into 2019, Tim Lester’s squad has very high volatility in its upcoming result. Here’s what to know about the newest edition of Western Michigan football.
Key Losses — Where Did the Receivers Go?
Although Western Michigan’s Potato Bowl defeat to BYU hurt, the repeated losses to the transfer portal this offseason sting just as badly.
Wide receiver Jayden Reed fit the role as the quintessential successor to Corey Davis. The Freshman All-American recorded four 100-yard games in his first season of collegiate action, hauling in eight touchdowns — including four in one game. Instead of continuing his career in Kalamazoo, Reed elected to sit out 2019 and transfer to Michigan State.
Western Michigan’s other projected starting receiver, Keishawn Watson, announced departure as a grad transfer in January. He landed at Appalachian State in May, causing the Broncos’ receiving corps to lose a valued veteran. Wide receiver Drake Harris (255 receiving yards in 2018) graduated, causing the team to lose three of the four primary wide receivers from 2018.
The Broncos lose depth at running back too. Longtime halfback Jamauri Bogan finally graduated after rising up to fifth in career rushing yards at Western Michigan. Freshman running back Chase Brown entered the transfer portal despite plenty of action as a secondary back.
Three-time All-MAC center/guard John Keenoy is a significant loss on the offensive line, although the rest of the unit is in great shape. Outside of Bogan, Keenoy, and defensive end Eric Assoua, graduation didn’t adversely affect Western Michigan to an extent this offseason, and the Broncos have many returning pieces to be excited about.
Key Returns — Bellamy, Wassink, Tranquill, and More!
Western Michigan’s returning cast is among the best in the conference.
LeVante Bellamy played his first snap in a Broncos uniform in 2015, and he’s not done yet. One of the fastest running backs in the FBS, Bellamy is back for a senior season after a fully healthy and successful 2018 campaign. As a junior, Bellamy rushed for 1,228 yards and six touchdowns, eclipsing the 120-yard mark five times. He averages 6.4 yards per carry in his career, but with Bogan and Brown gone, this upcoming year will likely be his highest usage rate yet.
Jon Wassink enters his third season as a starter. The senior has yet to play a game past October, and Western Michigan is at its best when Wassink is behind center. He hoists an 11-6 record as a starter in the past two seasons, but the Broncos are 2-6 when he’s out due to injury. Wassink showed strides last season, throwing for 379 and 439 yards in select games while increasing his yards per attempt average from 7.2 to 8.1.
Wassink’s backup Kaleb Eleby remains with the program after a decent relief effort in 2018. Eleby checked in four games as the starter, finishing his season with 1,092 yards and a 62.6 completion percentage.
Much of the offensive line is still in tact, led by senior Luke Juriga, a 2018 First Team All-MAC selection. Juriga will transfer from guard to center in a similar manner to John Keenoy’s transition. Left guard Mike Caliendo is one of the conference’s best blockers as well, and he’ll fortify the wall to protect Wassink and assist Bellamy on escaping the backfield.
While the losses of Reed, Watson, and Harris hurt, the receiver position is still in good hands as long as D’Wayne Eskridge is present. Eskridge demonstrated his true potential on Week 1 last season with 240 yards and two touchdowns in an offensive shootout against Syracuse. The senior has been earning offensive reps since the P.J. Fleck era, but he’s joined by some newer blood. Jaylen Hall will be the No. 2 option after a freshman campaign which featured 11 receptions and 170 yards. Western Michigan’s offense returns another gifted pass catcher, tight end Giovanni Ricci. Ricci attained All-MAC status in 2018 with 392 yards on 35 catches, while operating as a decent blocker as well.
Western Michigan’s defense ranked 103rd in the FBS, allowing 33.1 points per game in 2018. While the Broncos’ defense was one of the subpar units across the country, experience is an important quality to have in college football. Nearly the entire unit returns, with seven seniors and three juniors as projected starters.
Outside linebackers Drake Spears, and Alex Grace led the team with 86 and 83 tackles, respectively, while combining for 20.5 tackles for loss. The third-leading tackler, strong safety Justin Tranquill (82 tackles in 2018), is entering his senior year strong despite three previous ACL tears.
What’s New — Grad Transfers
Western Michigan landed a trio of grad transfers, including two from Power 6 conferences.
Defensive lineman Tim Collins joins the program from Tennessee Tech, while cornerback Kareem Ali (Temple) and wide receiver Cortez Lewis (Wake Forest) complete Western Michigan’s offseason haul.
Ali has just one career tackle to his name, but Lewis is a seasoned vet and a bona fide day one starter for the Broncos. Lewis was Wake Forest’s leading receiver in 2015 with 47 catches and 611 yards. He caught 32 passes for 415 yards as a sophomore, but his playing time diminished in 2017.
For the second consecutive offseason, Western Michigan ranked second behind Toledo for top recruiting class in the MAC. Plenty of the 2018 redshirts will make their debuts this August, while some of the top talent of the 2019 class may earn playing time.
2019 Western Michigan Broncos Schedule
|August 31 - Sat||vs. Monmouth (FCS)||N/A|
|September 7 - Sat||@ Michigan State||N/A|
|September 14 - Sat||vs. Georgia State||W, 34-15|
|September 21 - Sat||@ Syracuse||L, 42-55|
|September 28 - Sat||vs. Central Michigan||W, 35-10|
|October 5 - Sat||@ Toledo||L, 24-51|
|October 12 - Sat||vs. Miami OH||W, 40-39|
|October 19 - Sat||@ Eastern Michigan||W, 27-24|
|October 26 - Sat||vs. Bowling Green||W, 42-35|
|November 5 - Tue||vs. Ball State||L, 41-42|
|November 12 - Tue||@ Ohio||L, 14-59|
|November 26 - Tue||@ Northern Illinois||W, 28-21|
Western Michigan fared 6-4 against its upcoming schedule in 2018. All eight of its MAC opponents return.
The Broncos rebounded from an 0-2 start with six consecutive victories a season ago. With an FCS team visiting Waldo Stadium to kick off 2019, a 1-0 start looks probable for the first time since 2016. Western Michigan receives a visit from Georgia State in a very winnable non-conference game, but the Broncos must withstand road trips to Michigan State and Syracuse — two teams which defeated the Broncos by two touchdowns in the past two seasons.
In conference play, Western Michigan opens up with none other than its fiercest rival Central Michigan, in Jim McElwain’s first ever battle for the Victory Cannon. The Broncos’ schedule isn’t as front-loaded or too backloaded as in past years, but they close with difficult road games at Ohio and Northern Illinois. Western Michigan defeated NIU, the MAC champions, in 2018, but this time the season finale will have to be won in DeKalb.
Western Michigan opens the season with games on nine-straight Saturdays. The final three Broncos matchups are midweek #MACtion Tuesdays, with an unfortunately-placed bye week in between the penultimate and final game of the year.
In terms of returning talent, Western Michigan is in one of the best situations in the MAC. The Broncos lost skill position stars such as Jamauri Bogan and Jayden Reed, but they also feature viable players in those same positions — LeVante Bellamy and D’Wayne Eskridge.
Maintaining Jon Wassink is a huge plus for the program, and the Broncos’ season could shape up well if the senior remains healthy for an entire season. His Luke Juriga-led offensive line is among the upper tier in the conference, providing Western Michigan with valuable talent in every area of the offense.
Defensively, there are concerns as demonstrated in the 55-42 loss to Syracuse, 49-3 loss to Michigan, 59-14 loss to Ohio, and 42-41 overtime loss to Ball State, but retaining the same defensive personnel is an upgrade over teams replacing the majority of starters on defense. This team will go as far as the defense takes it, and the Broncos are looking for someone outside of Justin Tranquill to step up and become a star for the unit.
Given inconsistencies in past years, Western Michigan’s 2019 has great volatility associated with it. The Broncos could be battling for bowl eligibility, or perhaps, a MAC title. We’ll learn a lot from Tim Lester’s program as it enters the third year in the post-“Row the Boat” era.