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Five Things Learned: Syracuse 52, Western Michigan 33

The venue changed but it was essentially the same game as last year.

Western Michigan v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The rematch of Western Michigan and Syracuse was much like the original at Waldo Stadium last August. Syracuse emerged victorious in a 52-33 offensive shootout behind four touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito.

We’ve seen this movie before, almost exactly

In 2018, Syracuse jumped out to a 34-7 lead over the Broncos in Kalamazoo. Then, Western Michigan’s offense enthusiastically responded with three-straight touchdowns to cut Syracuse’s lead to 34-28, but the Orange ultimately prevailed in a 55-42 victory.

Fast forward 13 months, and the same result essentially transpired in Upstate New York. Syracuse’s offense surged out of the gate to a 21-0 advantage. But Western Michigan couldn’t be counted out, as running back LeVante Bellamy guided the Broncos back into the game, inching as close as 38-33. Once again, the Orange put the finishing touches on the contest by scoring the final two touchdowns to win 52-33.

Bellamy ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns (11.0 yards per carry) Saturday versus Syracuse, one year after posting 120 and two scores (10.9 yards per carry) on the same program.

The Syracuse quarterback, once again, registered a career high in rushing yards on Western Michigan’s defense. Eric Dungey bolted for 200 last fall and DeVito managed 85 in Week 4 with breakaway runs of 60 and 36. Additionally, running back Moe Neal rushed for two touchdowns for the second consecutive year.

The yardage totals? In 2018, Western Michigan edged Syracuse, 621-560. In 2019, the Broncos prevailed in that department, 557-545. In both meetings, the Orange fielded the better rushing game in terms of yardage while the Broncos were superior in the passing aspect.

At times on Saturday, it was unclear whether we were watching a new Syracuse-Western Michigan game or the same exact one as last year. The countless similarities are uncanny.

Giovanni Ricci should be a Mackey Award candidate

The tight end seems to be phasing out of college football with an increasing amount of teams shifting to shotgun-4-wide, shotgun-5-wide, and other air raid packages.

Giovanni Ricci proves the position is here to stay in Kalamazoo. While the senior did a solid job creating pathways for Bellamy and the other runners, he provided even more flare to the passing game. Ricci served as Jon Wassink’s number one target Saturday, leading all players with eight receptions. His 105 receiving yards marked a career high, and he also garnered a touchdown and a two-point conversion in a remarkable performance.

Ricci’s route-running was spectacular and he often created space in the middle of the field for uncontested receptions. But his strength was on display too, and he caught a couple of bullets in traffic.

This season, a third of the way through, Ricci has 20 receptions, 285 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. Last year’s John Mackey Award recipient for college football’s best tight end was presented to Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson, who caught 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns. Ricci is tied with Washington tight end Hunter Bryant for the FBS lead in receiving yards for the position, and he is the only tight end in the country with 20 receptions. His four touchdown catches are second among tight ends to Oregon’s Jacob Breeland, who has five. It’s time to get Ricci in the Mackey conversation after another spectacular outing Saturday.

Turns out Georgia State, not Michigan State, was the anomaly

Last week, I wrote the Five Things Learned column for Western Michigan’s 57-10 walloping of Georgia State. One of my main focuses was the vast improvement of the defense after allowing 51 to an offensively-challenged Michigan State team.

One of the things we learned in Week 4 is Georgia State isn’t that great. Perhaps this news was destined after the Panthers struggled to put down an FCS team in Week 2. But an overtime loss to Texas State proves Western Michigan’s win over Georgia State wasn’t anything more than dispatching a bottom-20 FBS team.

Anyway, the defense allowed over 500 yards for the second time this season. The last eight losses of the Tim Lester era — dating back to the 2018 Syracuse game — have involved the defense allowing 42 points or more, and five of those losses have involved the opponent posting 50 or more.

Western Michigan forced five punts and recovered two fumbles, but the Broncos most pressing issue is their inability to stop big plays. Three of the Orange touchdowns struck from more than 35 yards out including two scores by wide receiver Trishton Jackson. The Broncos let DeVito, who entered the game with -40 yards, record 85 rushing yards and allowed Neal to run free for 123.

Last year, a defensive coordinator firing was the response to repeated lapses on defense, and things don’t look too much different this time around. We’ll learn more about this unit come conference play, but right now, it seems the performance against Michigan State — not Georgia State — is the norm for this defense.

The only thing that could stop Bellamy was an injury

When the LeVante Bellamy turned on the lightswitch, it wouldn’t go off.

The senior halfback struggled in his opening games but rebounded nicely with over 190 yards against Georgia State last weekend. The rampage continued at Syracuse, where Bellamy led all runners with 165 yards on 15 carries. Bellamy faced some hardships out of the gate, including a failed fourth down conversion and a fumble, but those setbacks didn’t get to his head. His mature, focused response almost won the game for Western Michigan. He initiated the scoring movement with a 47-yard run in the early second quarter and continued his dominance in the second half.

But then injury struck. After 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Bellamy exited the game and never returned. Western Michigan only accumulated 24 rushing yards as a team after the star’s departure, and that proved to be costly. Facing a 4th-and-1 on their own 41 trailing 38-33, the Broncos couldn’t move past the sticks on a rushing play without Bellamy. Western Michigan never received another opportunity to take the lead.

Western Michigan wins? without first quarter mistakes

Yes, Western Michigan lost by 19 points. But the Broncos could have tweaked three major plays in a minor manner, and we’d be talking about a different outcome.

On the first drive of the game, trailing 7-0 after a quick Syracuse touchdown, Western Michigan pushes down the field instantly on a 43-yard reception by cornerback/wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge (who left the game with injury after the catch). The possession reaches the 14, but on 4th-and-1, Wassink doesn’t throw past the sticks and Bellamy is met by Syracuse strong safety Evan Foster for a stop. A different decision there extends the drive and likely results in scoring, considering the way the Broncos moved the ball all afternoon.

Western Michigan finally strung together consecutive first quarter stops, forcing Syracuse to punt. But Sterling Hofrichter’s second punt of the game was muffed by Mississippi State transfer Keith Mixon Jr. at the 9-yard line. Mixon has been an impressive return specialist all year long with a 35.6 kick return average, but this egregious error gifted Syracuse a 14-0 lead while the defense gained rare momentum.

On the Broncos’ final drive of the opening frame, Wassink guided the team downfield with good throws to Jaylen Hall and Ricci. Bellamy put on the burners for the finishing effort, but he fumbled inches from the goal line to spoil an 11-yard run. Syracuse recovered in the end zone for a touchback and the Broncos trailed 21-0 the next time the offense took the field. Without the turnover on downs and the two fumbles that set the tone, Western Michigan played an excellent game offensively and placed itself in perfect position for the road upset. Limiting these mistakes will prove significant in conference play as the team eyes its first MAC championship since 2016.