Not many Western Michigan fans believed their team would go into Michigan Stadium and knock off the Wolverines in Week 1. Even with that being the case, you couldn’t blame those same folks for scratching their heads, when that game followed a script that many other Broncos games have followed the past few years. The offense looks good at times, but the defense can’t get enough stops to keep WMU in the game.
In the subsequent three weeks, it has started to seem that this Bronco squad might be a tad different than the teams we’ve seen over the past four years.
Western Michigan turned in their third-straight complete performance on Saturday, knocking off San Jose State 23-3 behind a dominant performance from the defense. There are certainly still questions to be answered for the Broncos, but at 3-1, a number of concerns seem to have been addressed. Let’s take a look back and see what we can glean from this most recent victory over the 2020 Mountain West champions.
This defense may have found it’s formula for success
It’s a well established fact that getting pressure on the quarterback makes playing defense much easier. Get to the quarterback and the timing of the offense gets thrown off, which can lead to turnovers and myriad of other issues for the offense.
The Broncos’ front seven proved this fact yet again on Saturday.
Western Michigan made San Jose State QB Nick Starkel miserable all day at Waldo Stadium, racking up eight sacks and forcing Starkel out of the pocket on countless occasions. This performance is even more encouraging when considering that the Spartans had only given up two sacks all year coming into this game, and that included a game against USC. Ralph Holley had two-and-a-half sacks and Ali Fayad had two of his own, in what was one of the best defensive performances from the Broncos in recent memory.
The eight sacks played no small part in generating three turnovers, and the Broncos have now generated three takeaways in back to back games. It’s funny how the secondary doesn’t look as bad when they don’t have to cover for quite as long.
This feels like a formula that the Broncos can utilize on defense moving forward. Is it sustainable? That’s tough to say. Creating pressure on the QB certainly can be, though turnovers often have an element of luck involved. If the Broncos front seven, led by Fayad and Holley, can continue to generate pressure, this defense has a chance.
The running game seems to be finding its way
The Broncos offense has been mostly fantastic through the first month of the season, though the run game has had its ups and downs. Nobody will fault Western for struggling to establish the run against Michigan (no one’s really been able to do that in 2021), but the 3.3 yards per carry that the Broncos generated against Pitt last week was a bit concerning. Again, struggling to run the ball against a Power Five opponent is hardly a cause to ring any major alarm bells, but it did force the WMU offense to be a bit more one-dimensional than they would have liked. Compared to the 3.3 yards per carry the run game generated against Pitt, QB Kaleb Eleby averaged 9.4 yards per attempt through the air.
Some semblance of balance will be necessary heading into conference play, and top running backs Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson both seem to be settling in. Tyler led the way on Saturday with 12 carries for 65 yards, though Jefferson added 54 yards and a TD on 12 carries of his own. Through four weeks, both backs are averaging over four yards per carry (Jefferson is at 4.4 while Tyler is at 5.5), and the Broncos rushing attack presents a credible threat to the point that opposing defenses can’t focus singularly on the pass. This will be a problem for opposing defenses.
The Broncos are a legitimate MAC title contender
A lot of us were already thinking this, but these past two weeks have all but confirmed it. Especially encouraging for Broncos fans is that they won these two games in completely different fashions. Last week’s win at Pitt took on the feel of an old fashioned shoot out, with the offense needing to provide 44 points to claim the victory. On Saturday against San Jose State, the defense took center stage and limited the Spartans to 119 total yards.
Good teams can win in different ways, and the Broncos have shown us the capability to do just that. MAC West rivals Toledo and Ball State have both struggled to start the year, and both teams are on WMU’s October schedule. This Broncos team feels like it has more continuity, and more of an identity, than either of the aforementioned squads. They should be the favorite to win the division and get to Ford Field.
Obviously, there is a lot of football to be played between now and December 3rd. Consistency is something that has eluded Tim Lester’s squad the past few seasons, so nothing is a given. With that said, the early returns for the Broncos have been promising. All of their preseason goals remain within their reach.