Despite all the ups and downs of their 2021 season, Western Michigan finished it off with a win at Ford Field after all.
Though it wasn’t the MAC Championship game, the Broncos (8-5, 4-4 MAC) ended their season on a high note in Detroit on Monday, earning a 52-24 victory over Nevada (8-5, 5-3 Mountain West) in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Nevada entered this game a team in transition. Head coach Jay Norvell accepted the same role at Colorado State on Dec. 6, and brought a significant portion of his coaching staff with him (the Wolf Pack were without both their offensive and defensive coordinators for this matchup). Additionally, QB Carson Strong, WR Romeo Doubs, and TE Cole Tucker all opted out of the game, leaving the high powered Nevada passing attack relatively toothless.
Nevada first drive started at own 18, and it was actually the much maligned Nevada ground attack that got things started for the Wolf Pack. Devonte Lee picked up 36 yards on only two carries, and a defensive pass interference penalty moved Nevada into the Western Michigan red zone. The Broncos defense held and forced a field goal thanks to a sack on third down from Marshawn Kneeland, and Brandon Talton’s 32 yard kick gave the Wolf Pack a 3-0 lead.
Sean Tyler authored a quick response for the Broncos, taking the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, his second return touchdown of the season. Just like that, the Broncos had a 7-3 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
After a quick three-and-out and punt from Nevada, the Broncos took over on their own five-yard line. The Western offense wasted no time getting going, using runs from Jaxson Kincaide and Skyy Moore to pick up two first downs. On a first-and-10 from the Nevada 26 yard line, Eleby found WR Corey Crooms running free down the seam, and 74 yards later Crooms crossed the goal line to give the Broncos a 14-3 lead.
The Broncos defense forced another three and out on the next Nevada drive, and Western received possession of the ball at their own 23 after the punt. Backup QB Mareyohn Hrabowski saw a few plays on this drive, entering the game on two occasions to run zone read concepts. The Broncos eventually moved inside the Nevada ten yard line before the drive stalled out, opting to kick a field goal on fourth-and-two from the Nevada five-yard line. Parker Sampson’s kick sailed true, and the Broncos had a 17-3 lead with 14:15 to go until the half.
Nevada started their next drive at their own 42-yard line and in desperate need of a score. Cox showed a bit of his running ability on the drive, carrying twice for 23 yards on the drive, while also drawing a late hit penalty on one of those carries. Devonte Lee found the end zone from one yard out to cap the drive, and the Wolf Pack were back within one score at 17-10.
After an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and another nice kick return from Sean Tyler, Western Michigan started their next drive at their own 37. It was the ground game that led the way for most of the drive, with carries from Kincaide, Tyler, Hrabowski and freshman RB Zahir Abdus-Salaam bringing the Broncos deep into Nevada territory. On first and 10 from the Wolfpack 20 yard line, Eleby found TE Brett Borske for the 20 yard score, giving Western a 24-10 lead.
After another three and out and punt from the Wolf Pack, the Broncos took over at their own 28. Eleby found Skyy Moore over the middle for 21 yards on the first play of the drive, though that quickly turned into 4th and five at the Nevada 31. Tim Lester opted to keep his offense on the field, and Sean Tyler picked up nine yards to extend the drive. A 12-yard run from former Nevada back Jaxson Kincaide brought the Broncos inside the Nevada 10, and he capped the drive off on the very next play with a seven-yard touchdown run. The Broncos lead was now 31-10, which would remain the score at halftime.
The first half was dominated by the Broncos, as Western was balanced and efficient on offense. Eleby completed 7-of-12 passes for 137 yards, two scores, and an interception, while the ground game produced 168 yards and a score on 22 carries. The Nevada offense, which was severely affected by the previously mentioned opt out’s, was held to 111 total yards. QB Nate Cox was 4-of-10 for only 14 yards through the air and was sacked twice before the break.
Western started the second half at their own 25 yard line and picked up right where they left off before the break. Sean Tyler went 70 yards on the second play of the drive to quickly bring the Broncos inside the Nevada 10-yard line, and three plays later Eleby scored on a QB sneak to give WMU a 38-10 lead.
Nevada started their first drive of the half at their own 25, though the Wolfpack were only able to pick up one first down before being forced to punt. Julian Diaz pinned the Broncos inside their own 10 yard line for the second time, this kick travelling 59 yards and coming to rest at the WMU six-yard line.
The Broncos were forced to punt for the first time all game on the ensuing drive, failing to pick up a first down. It was the first stop of the day from the Wolfpack defense, not including the Hail Mary interception that ended the first half. The 53-yard punt from Nick Mihalich gave the ball back to Nevada at their own 30.
A facemask penalty gave the Wolf Pack one first down on the drive, and Cox found RB Toa Taua over the middle to get Nevada over midfield. Devonte Lee broke off a 33-yard run to get the Wolfpack down to the Western two-yard line, and Taua found the end zone two plays later to make the score 38-17. Nevada had been forced to punt on five of their previous six possessions.
The Western Michigan offense once again failed to pick up a first down, and Nevada received the ball back with 14:50 to go in the game. The Broncos defense supposedly acknowledged that another score from the Wolf Pack would make things interesting, and promptly forced a three and out of their own. Nate Cox found WR Tyrese Mack for 11 yards on third-and-13, and the Broncos regained possession at their own 39-yard line.
The ensuing drive saw the Broncos pound the ball on the ground, with Eleby attempting only one pass. Former Nevada RB Jaxson Kincaide led the way with six carries for 32 yards, and he capped the drive with a seven yard score, his second of the day. The Broncos lead was back to 28, at 45-17.
To their credit, the Wolf Pack kept fighting. Cox found WR Jamaal Bell for an 18-yard touchdown to finish off the ensuing eight play, 66-yard drive. With just over five minutes to go in the game, the Broncos led 45-24.
The Broncos emptied the bench on what would end up being their last offensive possession of the game. After recovering the Nevada onside kick and starting at midfield, RBs Zahir Abdus-Salaam and Trae Allen led the WMU offense down the field, with Allen capping the drive with a three-yard touchdown run to give the Broncos the score which would result in the 52-24 final score.
This was a dominant performance in all phases for Western Michigan. Nevada rarely appeared competitive in this game, with Sean Tyler’s first quarter kick return touchdown quickly erasing the only lead the Wolf Pack held all afternoon. When it was all said and done, the Broncos outgained the Wolf Pack . Nevada cut the lead to 17-10 early in the second quarter, but Western responded with a score of their own Nevada never threatened from that point forward.
This was perhaps the best performance this Western offense turned in all season, with the Broncos being balanced and efficient in all phases. The ground game was the star of the show, with seven different Broncos receiving at least one carry. As a team, Western compiled 355 rushing yards on 51 attempts and a healthy 7.0 yards per carry. Kaleb Eleby didn’t have to do much through the air but turned in another efficient performance, completing 8-of-14 passes for 162 yards and two scores.
The highlight of the day was the Western Michigan defense. As mentioned previously, this was a Nevada team that was badly affected by opt out’s, but this is still a team that finished fourth in the country in passing offense. Not having your starting QB and top two receivers will certainly impact that, but the Broncos defense still had a job to do, and worked efficiently, as the Wolf Pack were never able to get anything going. QB Nate Cox completed only 12-of-23 passes for 121 yards, one score, and one interception. Nevada was able to muster only 121 yards on 12 rushing attempts, and their 241 yards as a team was their lowest total of the season by almost 100 yards.
With this victory, the Broncos head into the offseason with an 8-5 record and the first bowl victory of the Tim Lester era. With high profile players such as QB Kaleb Eleby, WR Skyy Moore, and RB Sean Tyler eligible to return next year, expectations should once again be high in Kalamazoo. This victory could certainly send the Broncos into next season with momentum.