The matchup takes place every other season, but the Broncos haven’t found themselves on the winning side since exactly 100 years ago.
Saturday night, Michigan State and Western Michigan carry their 1-0 records into East Lansing for a Big Ten-MAC inter-conference rivalry. This time, the Broncos hope the result is different from the previous 11 meetings.
Western Michigan has bathed in adequacy for two years in the Tim Lester era, but the Broncos’ back-to-back 6-loss seasons were excusable due to injury hardships that struck late in the season. Now, the Broncos are fully healthy and poised to contend for a MAC Championship with a star-studded senior class.
Captaining the Broncos is quarterback Jon Wassink, who won MAC Offensive Player of the Week for a standout performance in the opener. In his first game back from a season-ending foot injury last October, the senior threw as many touchdown passes as incompletions (5) and tore apart the opposing Monmouth defense with 368 passing yards on an 80% completion rate. It marked the third time Wassink tossed five touchdown passes in a game and his 368 yards are the third highest of his Western Michigan career.
Western Michigan’s backfield is stocked with one of the fastest halfbacks in the nation. LeVante Bellamy brings his 4.3 speed to Kalamazoo. Despite only obtaining 53 yards on 18 carries in the opener, Bellamy remains one of the most dominant running backs in the MAC. He averages 6.2 yards per carry in his career and will be one of the few Broncos’ players suiting up for his third game against the Spartans (67 rushing yards in the 2017 meeting, 9 in 2015). Bellamy’s line is a sturdy unit, led by All-MAC center Luke Juriga and guard Mike Caliendo. The battle with Michigan State’s athletic defensive line in the trenches should be an intriguing one in East Lansing.
The young receiving corps surpassed expectations in Week 1. Freshman DaShon Bussell led the unit with 116 receiving yards in his collegiate debut, while tight end Giovanni Ricci produced 97 yards and two touchdowns against Monmouth. Seven other pass catchers made their contributions, including expected No. 1 wide receiver Jaylen Hall who caught a 33-yard touchdown pass a week ago.
On the other side of the ball, a former offensive star made an impressive defensive debut. D’Wayne Eskridge was moved from wide receiver to cornerback in spring ball, and the longtime wideout delivered in coverage. Eskridge recorded a team-high eight tackles and defended one pass, leading a coverage unit which allowed 194 passing yards on 42 attempts.
Western Michigan’s WILL linebacker should make an impact on the defensive side as well. Drake Spears tallied seven tackles in Week 1, and he’ll have a significant role operating in coverage while also containing Michigan State’s ground game.
Michigan State throttled Tulsa last Friday night in the most Michigan State manner possible. In an on-brand 28-7 victory, the Spartan defense stifled the Golden Hurricane by forcing -73 rushing yards, three turnovers, and a safety. Michigan State’s offense was short of spectacular, but the Spartans’ defensive dominance allowed the unit enough points to win by three touchdowns.
It should come to no surprise that the Spartans’ run defense is first in the nation by a mile, as Syracuse was the only other nation to hold an opponent to negative rushing yardage in Week 1 (-4). In the heart of Michigan State’s 4-3 defense lies middle linebacker Joe Bachie. Bachie is aiming to finish with his third consecutive season of reaching the 100-tackle mark, and he’s already off to a solid start with seven in the opener. Bachie was responsible for 1.5 of the Spartans’ 13 tackles for loss against Tulsa.
Another backfield invader is defensive end Kenny Willekes. The senior from Rockford, MI, managed 8.5 sacks a season ago and he added to his collection with another 1.5 in Week 1. Overall, Michigan State finished with six sacks, with cornerback Shakur Brown surprisingly ranking first on the team with two. The secondary limited the Golden Hurricane to 153 passing yards and an interception, making Zach Smith’s first start at Tulsa nothing more than a nightmare.
On offense, Michigan State isn’t loaded with as much star power as evidenced by the team’s 7-6 loss in the Redbox Bowl last December, but Mark Dantonio’s squad still has enough talent to be a force.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke launched his senior season with 192 passing yards and a touchdown on 21-of-37 passing. Last time Lewerke played Western Michigan, the Broncos pressured him into an adequate performance through the air, but Lewerke’s 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns delivered quite a blow to Western Michigan’s run defense. Lewerke has enjoyed a few tremendous performances as a passer including his back-to-back 400-yard games against Northwestern and Penn State in 2017.
Michigan State’s rushing game did not impress against Tulsa. The Spartans were held to 2.7 yards per carry as a team with a 16-yard carry by Lewerke marking the only rush of greater than 10 yards. With a similar cast of starters on defense, Western Michigan fielded an average run defense a season ago, allowing 166.2 yards per contest. Spears and defensive end Ali Fayad should play an important role in stifling Michigan State at the line of scrimmage.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Network: Big Ten Network
Location: Spartan Stadium — East Lansing, MI
Spread: Michigan State (-24.5)
ESPN FPI: Michigan State has 86.1% chance to win
All-time series: Michigan State leads 13-2
Last meeting: Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 14 — September 9, 2017
The last three Michigan State and Western Michigan games have all played out in similar fashion. Most battles between the in-state opponents start out as low-scoring defensive slugfests, filled with some turnovers or key plays made on defense and special teams. In 2013 and 2015, the Spartans won by 13 points, and they upped that number to 14 in the 2017 meeting.
Mark Dantonio owns a 5-0 record over Western Michigan, and you’ll have to go back in time to decades before Dantonio was even born to find a Broncos victory in the series. Western Michigan edged out the Spartans, 21-18, in October of 1919 — one year before the NFL’s inaugural season.
Western Michigan’s offense is better than Michigan State’s offense. Jon Wassink is healthy and looking better than ever, which is a great sign for the Broncos as the 2019 season picks up steam. But this is not the defense you want to face if you’re hoping to gain momentum.
Michigan State’s defense took the soul out of Tulsa last Friday night and tortured the Golden Hurricane into 80 total yards of offense. The Spartans’ ability to stop the run is unrivaled by any opponent on Western Michigan’s schedule, so it may be a difficult day to get LeVante Bellamy back on track in the running game.
Since Michigan State’s offense is still a work in progress, the Spartans won’t light up the scoreboard, but the unit will perform slightly better in Week 2, winning this game just like they win every game against the Broncos — by two scores.
Prediction: Michigan State 24, Western Michigan 14