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2019 MAC Football Week One Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos vs Monmouth Hawks

Two talented teams battle in Kalamazoo for their 2019 season openers.

NCAA Football: Potato Bowl-Brigham Young vs Western Michigan Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

The Monmouth Hawks from the FCS’ Big South Conference and Western Michigan had similar seasons last year, statistically speaking. Both teams ranked highly in scoring offense in 2018, with the Hawks finishing the season ranked 23rd and Western Michigan ranked 38th.

Heading into 2019, both teams figure to pick up where they left off on offense, returning most of the players that made them successful in 2018.

But the jump from contender to conference champion will depend on defensive growth as both teams finished in the bottom third of the FCS and FBS in scoring defense with the Hawks at 82nd and Western Michigan at 106th.


Western Michigan

Offense

Barring injury, Western Michigan will score and score often in 2019. The Broncos return several All-MAC players that helped them finish in the top third in the FBS in scoring offense in 2018: QB Jon Wassink, C Luke Juriga, TE Giovanni Ricci, and RB LeVante Bellamy.

And I expect LG Mike Caliendo to perform at an All-MAC level in 2019.

Western Michigan’s WR D’Wayne Eskridge switched to defensive back, leaving the wide receiver group less experienced but still talented. The top three WRs on the depth chart, Jaylen Hall, Dashon Bussell, and Tyron Arnett, are all three-star players according to 247Sports.

And the wide receivers should have some time to adjust to starting roles because RB Bellamy and TE Ricci are productive options in the passing game.

Defense

Western Michigan is a contender in the MAC West according to the Mid-American Conference head coaches’ poll, which has Western Michigan tied with the Toledo Rockets for the most first-place votes in the MAC West with four.

As a MAC title contender, improvement by the Western Michigan’s passing defense, and D’Wayne Eskridge’s play at CB, are major storylines to follow in the MAC West race in 2019.

I can understand why Western Michigan changed defensive coordinators for 2019 (promoting coach Lou Esposito) because the defensive talent seems more capable than the 34.5 points per game allowed last season.

This is good news for Broncos fans because the talent is in place at many levels of the defense to make significant improvement. Western Michigan has players at all levels of the defense who are named to preseason All-MAC teams by popular publications (Phil Steele, Athlon Sports) including DT Ralph Holley, DE Ali Fayad, LB Drake Spears, and S Justin Tranquill.

A major area of need is improvement in the area of team passing defense efficiency, where Western Michigan ranked 122nd (out of 129 FBS teams) in 2018. Team passing defense efficiency is an attempt to reduce key aspects of a defensive passing game performance to a single number.

This is where D’Wayne Eskridge enters the scene as a key figure in the MAC West race. How will a player perform as a senior CB who was recruited from high school as a running back (according to 247 sports) then spent his first three college seasons as a WR?

Who knows? But it should be fun to find out. Eskridge certainly has shown the speed an athleticism to compete at the college level.

Players in the MAC and other conferences have successfully made position changes in college or in the NFL: for example, Kent State Alum Julian Edelman moved from QB to WR. But a move from WR to CB? As a senior?

One recent example where the switch paid off was NFL CB Richard Sherman who played two seasons for the Stanford Cardinal as a WR before switching to CB his last two seasons.


Monmouth Hawks

Offense

The Hawks return several key players from a 2018 offense who finished 23rd in FCS scoring and should be as good or better than last season.

The Hawks’ 2019 story begins with senior QB Kenji Bahar, who was nominated the Big South Conference’s Preseason Offensive Player of the year for 2019. In 2018, Bahar led the Big South in passing yardage, passing touchdowns and passing efficiency.

The running game returns three players who had 8 touchdowns each last year and who combined for 2,089 yards rushing: Juwon Farri, Devell Jones, and Pete Guerriero. Last year Farri was a freshman and Guerriero was a sophomore so the arrow is clearly pointing up here.

The major loss heading into 2019 was WR Reggie White Jr., who is currently with the New York Giants. Monmouth spread it around last year so they return experience at the WR position to help offset the loss of White Jr. including three returning players who finished the year with double-digit receptions.

Defense

Monmouth returns the majority of its starts from the 2018 squad and hope another year of growth will result in a reduction in the points allowed this season. The Hawks return DB Tymere Berry and LB Evan Powell, both who had two interceptions in 2018. DB Anthony Budd returns and could be active in the Broncos backfield after leading the team in tackles for loss in 2018. DE Kahari Scarlett led the Hawks in sacks last year with 3 and contributed 7 tackles for loss and a blocked field goal.


Prediction

Western Michigan’s and Monmouth’s offenses will make plays in this game. Western Michigan’s defense will be tested and how it responds may show how much progress was made in the offseason.

Western Michigan 48, Monmouth 20