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2019 Week 4 MAC Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Syracuse Orange

Which version of Western Michigan will we see during the rematch vs. Syracuse?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Western Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

To open the 2018 season, Western Michigan lit up the scoreboard and erupted for 35 second half points in Kalamazoo.

Despite the offensive outburst, the Broncos started 0-1 as the team couldn’t stop Eric Dungey and the Syracuse offense. Syracuse led 34-7 at halftime, and despite Western Michigan cutting the margin to 34-28 in the third quarter, the Orange never allowed the Broncos an attempt at a go-ahead possession. The result was a 55-42 Syracuse victory, but the final song hasn’t been sung in the series. Both sides from the offensive shootout meet at The Dome on Saturday.


Western Michigan’s “Big 3” from 2018 ‘Cuse game

Western Michigan returns a similar cast of players from last year’s 97-point affair. Quarterback Jon Wassink burned the Syracuse defense with 379 passing yards — 19.9 per completion — in the loss last season. The senior quarterback has since returned from a season-ending injury and is off to a promising 2019. Wassink is completing 70.7% of his passes and ranks 16th in the country with 866 passing yards. He’s mastered throwing downfield with a rather new receiving corps, as only 10 quarterbacks boast most yards per passing attempt.

Running back LeVante Bellamy also enjoyed a prolific day against the Orange last August. He ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, including a 64-yard rushing score in the third quarter to slice the deficit to one possession. Bellamy struggled out of the gate this season, but he rewrote the story of his senior year with 192 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia State last weekend. The veteran runner also received some support in the backfield. Freshman Sean Tyler emerged as a potential breakout star by adding 138 yards and two touchdowns to Western Michigan’s prosperous rushing attack. In all, the Broncos recorded seven touchdowns in a 57-10 rout over the Panthers.

The other offensive star on the Broncos side from last year’s edition of Western Michigan-Syracuse was wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge. Although Eskridge torched the Syracuse defense with 240 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Eskridge will line up at cornerback this year. The former receiver has seldom lined up offensively this season, recording just one catch. But on the defensive side, he ranks fifth on the team in tackles and first in passes defended.


Rebuilding from Dungey

Even though Western Michigan posted ridiculous offensive numbers on Syracuse last fall, the true hero of the game was decked in orange and blue. Quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 184 yards, ran for 200, and recorded three total touchdowns in the shootout.

Dungey graduated, and now it’s Tommy DeVito’s turn at quarterback. DeVito threw for a career-best 330 yards in the Week 2 loss to Maryland, but that performance was sandwiched in between two games the sophomore quarterback would like to redo. In games against Liberty and Clemson, DeVito completed 32-of-62 passes and tossed three interceptions without a touchdown. He remains in the pocket more than Dungey and doesn’t exhibit quite a rushing threat, but there is potential in his arm. Strong games against Florida State and Louisville last year show that Dino Babers’ next quarterback is poised for a breakout game soon. And considering Western Michigan’s defense allowed 314 passing yards and three touchdowns to Brian Lewerke and a struggling Michigan State offense, what better time for DeVito than now?

Moe Neal remains Syracuse’s running back but also operates as the team’s second best receiver. Neal has contributed 158 yards on the ground and 161 as a receiver in 2019. Replacing Jamal Custis (168 receiving yards, two touchdowns vs. WMU in 2018) was no easy task but the Orange seem to be set with solid wideouts in Taj Harris and Trishton Jackson. Once again, it will be up to Eskridge and the secondary to stop another struggling offense from lighting up the Broncos’ defense.

Syracuse only scored 24 points at Liberty and 20 at Maryland before Clemson limited it to just six in the home opener. Like Western Michigan (opponents of Monmouth, Michigan State, Georgia State), the Orange have played three opponents of completely different caliber, and now it’s time to find where both teams stand.


Key Matchups

Western Michigan offensive line vs. Syracuse defensive line

After allowing three sacks and failing to propel the rushing game in East Lansing, Western Michigan’s offensive line completely redeemed itself against Georgia State. The unit in the trenches is one of the better of its kind in the MAC, featuring First Team All-MAC lineman Luke Juriga (currently at center, played guard last year) and guard Mike Caliendo. The line connected on its assignments against the Panthers and allowed zero sacks and open lanes for Bellamy and Tyler. Now, the opponent is Alton Robinson and a Syracuse defensive line which hasn’t performed to standard this year. The Orange front four was expected to wreak havoc in 2019, but the defensive line has struggled as a whole. Syracuse’s 190th ranked run defense will be tested by the Broncos’ running backs and o-line, so it’s up to the Orange to impose their will to prevent another dominant Western Michigan offensive outing.

Moe Neal vs. Treshaun Hayward

Western Michigan stifled Neal in last year’s matchup, holding the versatile running back to under three yards per carry. Similar to Bellamy heading into Week 3, Neal is still in search of that breakout game after rough performances against Maryland and Clemson. Western Michigan’s run defense did nothing to mitigate the Spartans’ run game several weeks ago, but a reserve outside linebacker stepped up and made a name for himself with 15 tackles last week. Treshaun Hayward carried the Broncos’ defense to new heights in Week 3, wrapping up for six unassisted tackles while managing to sack Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington 1.5 times. Hayward’s force at the line of scrimmage will prove to be a significant factor in determining the success of Neal’s next performance.

Jon Wassink’s deep passes vs. Andre Cisco

Wassink has completed one pass to Andre Cisco before, on the second possession of last year’s game in Kalamazoo. The quarterback will have to be wary of Cisco’s deep zone coverage, because the Jim Thorpe Award watch list member is the most dangerous man in that secondary. Cisco already has two interceptions to his name this year and that number is bound to increase when considering the free safety’s awareness skills on passes. Wassink likes to take deep shots, but he may want to avoid frequent risky throws and get the ball into the hands of Giovanni Ricci and other short yardage targets in this one.


Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 21 at 12 p.m. ET

Network: ACC Network

Location: The Dome (formerly known as Carrier Dome) — Syracuse, NY

Spread: Syracuse (-5.5)

ESPN FPI: Western Michigan has 55.8% chance to win

All-time series: Syracuse leads, 1-0

Last meeting: Syracuse 55, Western Michigan 42 — August 31, 2018

Many of the details which transpired in this game have already been mentioned. Western Michigan’s slow start put the Broncos in a 34-7 hole in Kalamazoo, but Wassink, Bellamy, and Eskridge led an almost-impressive comeback in the second half. However, Eric Dungey’s dual-threat abilities ended the comeback bid in the game which featured 13 touchdowns, 50 first downs, and 1,181 yards of total offense.


Prediction

This is an odd game.

Oftentimes, ESPN’s FPI metric favors the home team to a great extent. Considering Syracuse is favored and Western Michigan is given the computer odds, this one already has some eyebrow-raising attributes going into it.

Expect a complete shootout at The Dome. Syracuse and Western Michigan have shown inconsistencies on defense and neither team will be prepared for the offensive firepower on the other side. DeVito will go for 300, Wassink will be in a similar vicinity, and Neal and Bellamy should see plenty of positive production on the ground.

It’s hard to believe that Syracuse was ranked just two weeks ago, but a 63-20 loss to Maryland will quickly shoot you down the ranks. Western Michigan suffered an equally devastating Week 2 loss by allowing 51 to Michigan State. Erasing defensive woes which existed in those losses should be each team’s primary focus. Whatever team’s defense can get off the field prevails in this high-scoring bout.

Prediction: Syracuse 45, Western Michigan 41