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What We Learned: Takeaways from Western Michigan’s 28-0 win over Illinois State

The Broncos defense turned in a dominant performance against the Redbirds.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing Week 1 performance against Michigan, the Western Michigan Broncos responded with a dominant victory in Week 2, defeating FCS foe Illinois State 28-0 in Kalamazoo.

Many Broncos fans have been disappointed by the program since PJ Fleck’s departure, and many of the same issues that have plagued WMU under Tim Lester arose against the Wolverines. Namely, the defense seemed prone to giving up the big play, while also struggling to stop the run. It is within this context that the Broncos defense turned in a historic performance on Saturday. What can be learned from a dominant performance against an FCS foe? Let’s take a look.

This defense has the potential to be great

It’s never been a question of talent with this unit. Bricen Garner and AJ Thomas in the secondary are two of the best defensive backs in the league. The same could be said about Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley along the defensive line. It’s all of this individual talent that has made the inconsistency of the Broncos defense so frustrating.

Against Illinois State, there is no denying that the Broncos had a talent advantage. Even with that said, the numbers that the Western defense put up on Saturday are staggering.

The Broncos limited the Redbirds offense to 57 yards for the game, corralling dual threat QB Bryce Jefferson and completely shutting down anything ISU wanted to do offensively. Jefferson finished 8-of-19 for 29 yards and an interception, and the Redbirds ground game finished with 28 yards on 26 carries.

The 57 yards allowed tied a program record for the fewest yards allowed in a game, and the Broncos defense never allowed any shadow of a doubt in this one. It bears mentioning that Illinois State is a very good FCS team – the Redbirds finished the 2019 season ranked seventh in the country after falling in the FCS playoff quarterfinals.

Despite the level of the opposition, this was a very encouraging performance for the Broncos. If they can defend the run and get after the quarterback like this moving forward, this unit will be greatly improved from what we saw last year.

The offense needs to clean up the turnovers

As dominant as the Broncos defense was in this one, the offense couldn’t get out of it’s own way at times. After getting a La’Darius Jefferson TD run on their opening drive of the game, the Western offense failed to score any points on their next three drives. One of those drives ended after a failed fourth down attempt, and another on a La’Darius Jefferson fumble in the Illinois State red zone.

Backup QB Mareyohn Hrabowski also put the ball on the turf in the second half, and the Broncos lost the turnover battle 2-0. Though the Broncos won this game by 28 points, they could have won by 40 if not for these errors. You can afford to be sloppy against an FCS opponent, but Broncos fans surely want to see these issues cleaned up as conference play approaches.

The offense is still going to lead this team

Through two weeks, the Broncos offense has failed to really get going. After only putting up 14 points against Michigan in the season opener, some might be a little disappointed by the offensive output against Illinois State.

I am here to say: it’s all going to be alright, Broncos fans. Aside from the two fumbles, this offense was in control for the entire game in Week 2. Watching the game, you got the sense that the offense was keeping things close to the vest and banking on the fact that their talent could win them the game. Thankfully for WMU fans, they were proven correct. Kaleb Eleby’s numbers were not eye popping (15 of 21, 174 yards and a TD), but he was efficient as he always is. La’Darius Jefferson broke 100 yards on only 18 carries and was able to find the end zone twice. The veteran offensive line allowed Eleby ample time to throw, and I imagine that will continue as we move towards conference play. This unit is going to be just fine.

It’s always tough to analyze a game against an FCS foe, much in the same way that it’s tough to glean too much from a match up against a Big Ten or SEC squad. The talent disparity in these games often determines most of the outcome. What you’d like to see from a MAC squad against an FCS opponent is a quick start, and not allowing the FCS squad any momentum. The Broncos accomplished that for the most part, and thus have found themselves their first win of the 2021 season. The Broncos now enter Week 3’s intriguing match up with the Pitt Panthers at 1-1, and they hope to pull off the upset as they travel to the Steel City.

Kickoff at Heinz Field is set for 12:00 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.