Western Michigan and Buffalo met for the first time in four years this past Saturday, with the Broncos grinding out a workmanlike 24-17 victory. The non-conference schedule is always exciting, and always provides us some glimpses of what we can expect from any given team in any given year. But the move into the conference schedule, when a team is playing it’s true peers, is when a teams true identity reveals itself.
After this bout to open up the conference schedule, both of these teams have some things that need to improve. Regardless, both can take away plenty of encouragement from this game as well, and both teams seem well positioned to compete for a bowl berth and a division title. Let’s take a look at both squads and reflect on what we learned on this particular afternoon.
The Western Michigan defense is for real
Inconsistency and the vulnerability to the big play have hampered the Western Michigan defense for much of the Tim Lester era. The performance was up and down for most of the non-conference schedule, with great performances against Illinois State and San Jose State being mixed in with poor performances against Michigan and Pitt. Obviously, level of competition plays a factor, but there were some troubling signs against the Wolverines and Panthers that couldn’t be chalked up solely to the talent disparity. Blown assignments and missed tackles led to chunk plays for the opposition and prevented the Broncos defense from getting off the field.
These last two weeks, WMU has found their defensive identity. After getting eight sacks and allowing only 119 total yards against San Jose State two weeks ago, the Broncos followed that up by holding Buffalo to 282 total yards and were the first team to sack Kyle Vantrease all season. For comparison, the Bulls entered this game averaging 408.2 yards per game, which included 408 yards versus nationally ranked Coastal Carolina and 359 against Big Ten foe Nebraska.
It can’t be underestimated how impressive it is to sack Kyle Vantrease. This Bulls offensive line had allowed only one sack in their past 14 games, and Zaire Barnes sack led to a fumble, which the Broncos promptly recovered. The Broncos are now tied for 19th in the country, and first in the MAC, with 16 sacks through five games. This front seven is playing at an extremely high level right now, led by veterans Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad on the defensive line.
The other aspect of this defense that has emerged recently is their ability to generate turnovers. The aforementioned Kyle Vantrease fumble represented the Broncos seventh takeaway in the last three contests. WMU currently ranks second in the MAC and is tied for 12th in the FBS with 11 takeaways through five games.
While the big play is still an issue at times, the defense has found its identity. If they can continue to play at this level, this team has a great chance to get to Ford Field.
The Broncos have a kicking problem
We all know the Western Michigan offense is great. The defense has been a pleasant surprise, and generally speaking the Broncos have gotten off to about as good of a start as their fans could have hoped. There’s really only been one exception.
The kicking game has been less than stellar.
Nick Mihalich and Parker Sampson combined to go one for three on field goal attempts this past Saturday, and the numbers for the entire season have not been pretty. The Broncos have converted on just three of their seven field goal attempts on the season, good for just a 42.9 percent conversion rate, which is last in the MAC.
Parker Sampson was brought in this season as a transfer from Northwest Missouri State to help solidify the position, but through five games has struggled and converted only two of his six attempts. Thiago Kapps, last year’s starter, is still on the roster but was only four of seven last year, and also missed three PAT’s.
Obviously, this isn’t a situation like in the NFL where you can just sign a kicker off the street mid-season. The Broncos need to figure it out with what they have on the current roster, and perhaps part of the solution will be simply going for it on fourth down when in field goal range. Either way, the lack of a reliable kicker is less than ideal. For a team without many other weaknesses, this is one area where the Broncos really need to improve moving forward.
Buffalo is still Buffalo, even with a new head man
I have to give Buffalo some credit here, as I clearly underestimated them coming into the season. I’m not ashamed to say that I was not high on the Bulls after the departure of Lance Leipold, and the attrition of talent that followed. I really believed that losing Jaret Patterson and three starters on the offensive line would be too much to overcome. If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have guessed that this team would be lucky to get to five wins.
I was wrong.
The Bulls still have the same hard nosed identity on offense, averaging 189.2 rushing yards per game (fourth in the MAC) and a healthy 4.7 yards per carry (also fourth). While Kevin Marks, Jr. is the lead back and leads the team in carries, Ron Cook Jr. and local product Dylan McDuffie have also emerged as good changes of pace, giving Buffalo three legitimate backs to choose from. Marks has not had the fast start to the year that I thought he might, but a lot of that can be attributed to the performances of Cook and McDuffie.
There was some thought that Kyle Vantrease might be asked to do more this year with the graduation of Jaret Patterson, however new head coach Mo Linguist has opted to carry over the run first philosophy from the Leipold era. Regardless, Vantrease has proven yet again to be a solid signal caller, completing 61 percent of his passes and having thrown only one interception through the first five games of the season. He can certainly do more if asked, but Buffalo seems content to establish the run and let Vantrease throw the ball 20-25 times per game. It’s a formula that has worked well for them in the past.
The Bulls currently sit 2-3 (0-1) and have a tough game at Kent State this Saturday. The Flashes certainly look beatable, but will also have revenge on their mind after the 70-42 beatdown that Buffalo gave them last year. A win at Dix Stadium is a big ask, but the Bulls should be favored in at least four of their last six contests of the year. A bowl berth is well within reach, and I think getting to seven wins would be a huge accomplishment for coach Linguist in his first year at the helm of the program.
Overall, these are two teams heading in the right direction. Western Michigan has established themselves as a legitimate title contender, and the Bulls have shown that they can be a force in the east. Both teams take the field again this Saturday, as Buffalo travels to Kent for a 7:00 kick and Western Michigan returns home to host Ball State at 3:30.