To label last week’s matchup against Michigan State as “disappointing” is an understatement.
Western Michigan’s defense gave new life to a struggling Spartans offense, allowing 51 points and 582 total yards in East Lansing. Whether it was through the air or on the ground, Michigan State capitalized on nearly every possession, racking up 31 first downs and averaging 8.7 yards per snap.
The Broncos are now 1-1 with a return trip to Kalamazoo on the horizon. Awaiting them is a familiar foe from last September, one Western Michigan dispatched by a 34-15 margin on the road. The opponent, the 2-0 Georgia State Panthers, are reveling in the limelight after upsetting Tennessee in Neyland Stadium to kick off their season. It only took two games for the Panthers to match their 2018 win total, but not everything has been smooth sailing in Atlanta. Last week, Georgia State trailed 20-3 to Furman of the FCS in the second quarter, but quarterback Dan Ellington and the Panther offense emerged with a 48-42 victory.
Western Michigan is seeking the MAC’s second win over an FBS opponent this year after in-state rival Eastern Michigan defeated another Sun Belt team (Coastal Carolina) in Week 1.
Rebounding from Michigan State
With an AP Top 20 opponent appearing on the schedule in the second week of the season, not too many projected Western Michigan would boast an undefeated record heading into the Georgia State game.
But the Broncos defense was completely decimated by a Spartan offense, which put up a pedestrian 28 points against a typically-weak Tulsa defense in Week 1. Western Michigan was eight yards away from allowing a 200-yard rusher and 15-yards away from allowing a 200-yard receiver. There was no particular skill the defense excelled in, and this has been an ongoing issue for the Broncos. The program fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust after allowing 42 to Ball State last year, but two of the four games under new DC Lou Esposito have featured the opponent scoring six touchdowns.
Western Michigan’s defense performed well in its FCS showcase against Monmouth in its last outing at Waldo Stadium. Wide receiver-turned-cornerback D’Wayne Eskridge led the secondary with eight tackles on kickoff week and followed that up with three passes defended in the Michigan State game. Another one of the bright spots in the secondary has been free safety Justin Tranquill. Tranquill hasn’t seen playing time in favor of A.J. Thomas, but Tranquill made his voice heard last week with 14 tackles in the blowout loss.
But one additional concerning factor in Western Michigan’s defense is the lack of pass rush. The team totaled zero sacks against the much-bigger Spartan offensive line, an aspect of the game which it hopes to improve against a rising Georgia State offense.
Offensively, the ship is not Wassink-ing
Piling up just 17 points isn’t the result Western Michigan hoped when it traveled to Michigan State, but the Broncos still managed to move the ball through the air. Three turnovers and two missed field goals stalled several promising drives, but Jon Wassink still did his part against one of the most relentless defenses in all of college football.
As the MAC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 1, Wassink didn’t exactly replicate the numbers against the Big Ten power with 252 yards and two interceptions. But he looked solid in the pocket for much of the game and is already establishing strong connections with his new premier targets — Mississippi State transfer receiver Keith Dixon Jr. and tight end Giovanni Ricci. Now, it’s about finishing drives by preventing turnovers and calling smart plays on third downs (5-of-16 last week).
Doak Walker Award hopeful LeVante Bellamy hasn’t exactly established his rhythm on the ground yet. He averaged under three yards per carry against Monmouth, and playing a Michigan State run defense which allowed -43 yards against Tulsa didn’t exactly do any favors in Week 2. Heading into Week 3, Georgia State’s run stopping unit seems like a wildcard. Against a stronger opponent in Tennessee, the defense stood its ground but allowed over 5.0 yards per carry when Furman visited last Saturday. Bellamy becomes dangerous in open field situations because of his rarely-matched speed. Western Michigan’s primary goal on Saturday should be to work Bellamy on the ground to keep the offense versatile and expose weaknesses noticed in the Furman game.
Welcome to the spotlight, Georgia State
We all know what happened by now.
In a game which had everyone flipping to ESPNU on opening Saturday, Georgia State overcame a 26-point spread and knocked off Tennessee in Knoxville. The final score displays an 8-point margin between the teams but Georgia State dominated the second half. The defense brutalized Tennessee in the trenches with four sacks and allowing just 3.0 yards per rushing attempt. The offense became incredibly efficient by picking up yards in small dosages with Tra Barnett and Dan Ellington running all over the Volunteer defense.
But fewer people paid attention to Georgia State’s Week 2, a game which the Panthers were forced to collect themselves and chip away at a 3-possession deficit to an FCS team. Georgia State played a considerably worse hangover game in Atlanta, allowing over 500 yards of offense and letting Furman pick up first down after first down through the air. The Panthers recorded 28 unanswered points after a 20-3 deficit, but they still let Furman hang in and receive an opportunity at a game-winning drive with about two minutes left in the game.
Still, Georgia State is 2-0. The Panthers massively struggled in 2018 with a 2-10 standing just one season after winning their first bowl game. After several weeks of 2019 through the books, Georgia State appears to be trending back in the right direction after a minor hiccup under Shawn Elliott.
The focal point of the offense is quarterback Dan Ellington, who appears to be a much improved version of himself from a season ago. Ellington has yet to throw an interception this year in 61 attempts, and the quarterback fired five touchdown passes on 362 yards a week ago. He’s a solid runner as well, averaging over 73 rushing yards per game thus far. His gutsy play against Tennessee was a major factory in helping Georgia State’s offense drive to victory in the fourth quarter of that contest.
Georgia State players to watch
On the ground, Georgia State frequents Tra Barnett, who has acquired 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries this season. Wide receiver Cornelius McCoy is Ellington’s primary go-to with 186 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. Defensively, a name to watch on the Panthers is safety Remy Lazarus. The senior has been a consistent top performer on defense this season, tallying 10 total tackles and returning an interception for 57 yards in last week’s victory.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Location: Waldo Stadium — Kalamazoo, MI
Spread: Western Michigan (-9)
ESPN FPI: Western Michigan has 72.5% chance to win
All-time series: Western Michigan leads series, 1-0
Last meeting: Western Michigan 34, Georgia State 15 — September 22, 2018
Jon Wassink completed 20-of-25 passes with three touchdowns, while the Broncos halfback duo of Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy each surpassed 120 yards. It was a versatile, dominant offensive performance for Western Michigan in Atlanta, but the defense fulfilled its duty as well. With outside linebacker Drake Spears storming the backfield, Georgia State averaged 1.9 yards per rush and allowed 10 tackles for loss in a 19-point defeat at home.
Both of these teams are still attempting to create an identity.
While Georgia State has already proved it’s a step above last year’s 2-10 team, the Panthers still struggled with an FCS opponent last week and must prove that defensive performance was a fluke. Western Michigan was expected to enter the season with highly efficient offensive production from Wassink and Bellamy, but the team no-showed in East Lansing after providing the Spartans several competitive games through the years.
The winner of this offensive-heavy battle will be the one which commits fewer mistakes through the air and utilizes its receiving talent to outdo the opponent’s secondary. Considering Jon Wassink’s success against the Panthers a year ago and his return back to Kalamazoo, the senior quarterback will lead Western Michigan to a 2-1 start after a 300-yard, 3-touchdown minimum day through the air. But still, don’t sleep on Georgia State’s offense.
Prediction: Western Michigan 41, Georgia State 36