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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 4 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos vs San Jose Spartans

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The Broncos are riding high after last week’s upset over Pitt. Their reward for the big win? A date with last years’ Mountain West champions

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan got their signature win this past Saturday, walking into Heinz Field and walking out with a thrilling 44-41 victory over Pitt. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the Broncos have no time to rest on their laurels, as a talented and experienced San Jose State team travels to Kalamazoo for an intriguing MAC vs Mountain West non-conference match up.

Earlier this week we were reminded of the weird times we’re living in, as it was announced that Broncos head coach Tim Lester has tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be on the sidelines on Saturday. It has not yet been announced who will handle head coaching duties in Lester’s absence.

Regardless of the coaching situation, this is a great non-conference match up between two very good group of five teams. How will the Broncos respond after picking up a season defining victory on Saturday? With conference play approaching, could this potentially be a “look ahead” spot for Western Michigan? If the Broncos don’t enter this game focused, San Jose State has the talent to take advantage and escape Kalamazoo with a victory.


Getting to know the Spartans

Traditionally, San Jose State is not a football power. After a period of success in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the Spartans program declined drastically and have experienced only four winning seasons since 1993. In 2017, San Jose State hired Brent Brennan as their new head coach, and Brennan has slowly built this program into a contender. After going 3-22 in his first two years, a 5-7 season in 2019 showed progress.

Last year, the hard work and patience of the coaching staff paid off with a 7-1 record, and the programs first conference championship since 1991 when they were a member of the now defunct Big West. Even after falling to Ball State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl, the Spartans finished the year ranked 24th in the final AP poll.

That team returned 19 starters, and expectations remain high in the Bay Area. QB Nick Starkel seems to have found his level in San Jose after previous stops at Texas A&M and Arkansas, and he was second-team all-MWC last year after completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,174 yards, 17 TD’s and seven interceptions. Starkel has been a bit uneven through three games this yea; he is 13th in the country in passing yards, with 937, but he is also completing only 51.2 percent of his passes and has a very pedestrian six to four TD to INT ratio. Part of this can be chalked up to a tough match up against USC in Week 2, where Starkel was 24-of-46 and threw two interceptions. That’s a performance that can be excused, but last week’s 23-of-50 stat line against Hawaii doesn’t inspire much confidence.

This is a team that is very dependent on the pass to get their offense going. Currently, the Spartans rank 16th in the country in passing yards, coming in at 317.7 yards per game. The run game has been a struggle, averaging only 85.7 yards per game (about 3.8 yards per carry.) That clocks in at 120th in the FBS. Despite these struggles, RB Tyler Nevens leads the way in the run game, with 27 carries for 149 yards (5.5 yards per rush) and two touchdowns. Nevens was unavailable for the Hawaii game last week, and his status for week four remains in question. If he can’t go, Kairee Robinson will step into the starting running back role.

The offensive line here is solid, and one of the best in the Mountain West. Starkel has only been sacked twice in his 123 drop backs, and this group gave up only eight sacks in eight games last year. Left tackle Jeff Snyder was first team all-MWC last season, and the other four starters from last year’s line return along with him.

Looking at the skill positions, the Spartans had two significant losses on the outside. Leading receivers Bailey Gaither (41 catches, 725 yards, 4 TD’s) and Tre Walker (45 catches, 627 yards, 4 TD’s) both graduated, leaving a lack of proven pass catchers. TE Derrick Deese Jr., who was the Spartans’ third leading receiver last year, has moved into the lead role. Through three games, he has six receptions for 135 yards and one score. Instead of focusing on one specific target, Starkel appears to be spreading the ball around more this year, as seven Spartans receivers have between four and eight catches on the year. While none of the current roster may have the breakaway speed of Gaither or Walker, this group has talent and will challenge the Broncos secondary.

On defense, this is a solid unit that gave up only 19.9 points per game in 2020. Making their returns are 10 starters from that group, including DE Cade Hall last year’s Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Hall is joined on the defensive line by DE Viliami Fehoko, who was a first team all-MWC selection himself last year. This is one of the best defensive lines the Broncos will face all season.

At linebacker, Kyle Harmon was yet another first team all-MWC last season and is a tackling machine much in the spirit of Akron LB Bubba Arslanian. Harmon led the team with 78 tackles last year, and leads the unit yet again in 2021 with 24 tackles through the first three contests. Jay Lenard and Tre Jenkins for a formidable safety tandem on the back end, though I do think that Western Michigan’s skill players can have success here.

This defense currently sits in the middle of the pack in most major statistical categories. In total defense, the Spartans currently rank 60th in the country, giving up 345 yards per game. The pass defense currently clocks in at 68th in the country, giving up 212.3 yards per game, while the run defense comes in at 66th (132.7 yards per contest).

In their toughest test of the season, this defense gave up 416 yards of total offense to USC. Trojan QB Kedon Slovis went 24 of 36 in that game, good for 256 yards and two scores. The Trojans also racked up 160 rushing yards and 4.7 yards per carry.

The numbers for this defense look good, though they are bolstered somewhat by games against Southern Utah and Hawaii. USC certainly has more talent than Western Michigan, but their gameplan in their 30-7 victory over the Spartans could provide a blueprint for the Broncos success on Saturday.


How do the Broncos match up?

Offensively, Western Michigan is going to be able to move the ball in this game. The Broncos have already faced two superior defenses this year in Michigan and Pitt, and the performance against Pitt this past Saturday will certainly give Kaleb Eleby and company confidence moving forward. Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms have solidified the passing game, and I anticipate that Eleby will have yet another big day.

My concern in this one comes along the offensive line. This is a deep, veteran unit, but the Spartans defensive line could be one of the best in all of the group of five. Because of Hall and Fehoko, San Jose State is often able to get pressure without blitzing, so the Broncos line will need to handle that and keep Eleby upright. The run game has been a struggle thus far for the Broncos, though Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson both seemed to find their footing this past Saturday. If WMU can establish the run game and keep Eleby clean in the pocket, it will go a long way towards their success in this one.

On defense, the struggles of the Broncos secondary have been well documented. This is my main concern in this match up, as Nick Starkel is a proven veteran QB and the Spartans love to throw the ball around the yard. Starkel is probably watching the film of what Kenny Pickett did to this Broncos secondary last week and salivating. Western Michigan needs to prevent the big play in this one, though we all know that this is something that this unit has struggled with. To be honest, I don’t see the Western having much success slowing down the Spartans, and the 63.5 total seems to indicate that Vegas agrees.


Prediction

As you may have guessed by that last paragraph, I anticipate this to be a high scoring affair. The Broncos offense seems to be clicking on all cylinders right now, but I do not see a scenario where the Western defense is able to have sustained success. I think both quarterbacks will have a big day in this one.

Another concern I have from a Western Michigan perspective is a potential “low” spot: the Broncos are riding high after last week’s upset over Pitt, and they start conference play next week with a big trip to Buffalo. Could this game be a potential let down? Losing your head coach due to COVID days before the game certainly doesn’t help either.

With all of that said, I think the Broncos pull this one out in a high scoring affair. If you like offensive fireworks, then this game should be appointment television for you. This is a great non-conference group of five match up, and should be a very fun game.

Prediction: Western Michigan 41, San Jose State 38