The struggles of the Western Michigan defense have been well documented. Dating back to last season, the Broncos have scored points in bunches, only to have a number of games slip away due to their inability to get stops.
If Saturday’s performance is any indication, it seems like things may be changing in Kalamazoo.
The Broncos defense turned in a dominant performance on Saturday afternoon at Waldo Stadium, holding San Jose State to 119 yards of total offense in a 23-3 victory. Even more impressive? The WMU defense held the Spartans to eight yards in the second half.
You read that right. Eight yards in an entire half of football. The Spartans had seven possessions after half time and could only muster three first downs in that span.
Things actually seemed to be in the Spartans favor to start the game, as they forced a punt on the Broncos first drive and followed that up with a six-play, 52 yard drive of their own. Matt Mercurio capped the drive with a field goal, and the Spartans had themselves a 3-0 lead.
They wouldn’t score again.
On the ensuing drive, the WMU offense marched 75 yards in eight plays, capped off by a 22-yard TD pass from Kaleb Eleby to Jalen Hall. The extra point was blocked, and the Broncos led 6-3. The two teams seemed to be feeling each other out at this point, and both offenses seemed to be settling in.
The Western Michigan defense quickly changed that on the next drive, as LB Ryan Selig intercepted Nick Starkel on the first play of the possession, setting the Broncos offense up at the Spartans 41-yard line.
The Broncos would settle in with a road-grating 11-yard drive, culminating in a one-yard TD run by La’Darius Jefferson. The key play of the drive came when Eleby found Skyy Moore over the middle for a 17-yard gain on fourth-and-16 to keep the drive alive. The Broncos suddenly found themselves up 13-3 and firmly in control as the end of the first quarter approached.
Both defenses forced punts on the next two drives, and San Jose State found themselves with first-and-ten at midfield with 12:23 to go in the first half. With good field possession, a good drive and a score would have put the Spartans right back into the thick of things.
The Broncos defense had other ideas. After picking up one first down, and facing second-and-six at the Broncos 33 yard line, Ali Fayad sacked Starkel and caused a fumble which was recovered by Corvin Moment. All of a sudden, WMU had the ball at their own 45 yard line with a chance to create some separation before halftime.
The Broncos offense responded in kind, going 55 yards in six plays. On fourth-and-four at the Spartans 37-yard line, Eleby scrambled and found Corey Crooms for a TD to put the Broncos up 20-3.
That would be all the offense the Broncos would need on this day.
The second half would be dominated by the Broncos defense, who forced five punts on the Spartans seven second half possessions. The other two? A fumble, and a turnover on downs.
The only other scoring of the day came midway through the fourth quarter. After Ryan Selig recovered a fumble, the defenses third takeaway of the day, Parker Sampson kicked a 30 yard field goal to give the Broncos a 23-3 lead. That would prove to be the final tally.
While the offense is usually the star of the show for Western Michigan, it was the defense that ruled the day on this particular afternoon. Spartans QB Nick Starkel finished the day 6-of-14 for 55 yards and an interception. Backup QB’s Walker Eget and Natano Woods also saw the field, though neither had any success. Combined, the three Spartans QB’s went 9-of-26 for 59 yards and an interception.
A major factor in the Spartans struggles was the constant pressure from the Broncos front seven, who combined for eight sacks on the day. Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad led the way, with two and a half and two sacks, respectively. Holley and Fayad are the well established leaders of this defense, and they showed why today. Safety Delano Ware led the defense with nine total tackles.
About the only success the Spartans had offensively came from bruising RB Tyler Nevens, who had 94 yards on 15 carries. However, because of the ineffectiveness of the passing game, his production wasn’t nearly enough to keep San Jose State in the game.
Offensively, the Broncos were efficient, if perhaps not as high powered as usual. Kaleb Eleby was 17-of-28 on the day, good for 200 yards, two TD’s, and no interceptions. Sean Tyler led the ground game with 69 yards on 12 carries, and La’Darius Jefferson added 52 yards and a TD on 12 carries of his own. Altogether, the Broncos finished with 179 rushing yards on 43 carries.
This performance, paired with last week’s upset over Pitt, has confidence sky high in Kalamazoo. Entering the year, many folks believed the Broncos had the talent to challenge for the MAC crown. These two performances have confirmed that, and WMU finds themselves in great position as conference play gets set to open next week.
The Broncos open their conference slate with a trip to Buffalo, hardly an easy place to play. Kickoff next Saturday is set for 12:00 at UB Stadium.