Western Michigan embarked on the 2021 season with high expectations, and understandably so.
The Broncos have a veteran laden team, with 19 returning starters, and a high powered offense led by QB Kaleb Eleby and RB La’Darius Jefferson. The Broncos traveled to Ann Arbor believing they could pull the upset over Michigan. Tim Lester’s squad was able to keep it close for a quarter, but unfortunately for Western fans, the talent and depth of the Wolverines ultimately prevailed, with Michigan pulling away for a 40-7 win.
There was reason for optimism early in this game. After Michigan marched 75 yards on 11 plays on their opening drive to go up 7-0, the Broncos promptly responded with a 75-yard drive of their own. Western moved efficiently down the field in 10 plays, and capped the drive off with a two yard TD run by La’Darius Jefferson to knot the score at seven. Even the Broncos defense appeared to be holding up early, holding the Wolverines to a three and out and a field goal on their ensuing drive following a 73-yard kick return by Ronnie Bell. After the teams traded two more three and outs, the Broncos found themselves down 10-7 after one quarter, and the game was very much in reach at that point. Western held a 126-78 offensive yard advantage in the first frame and did not appear to be intimidated by the Wolverines.
Things quickly changed once the page turned to the second quarter. Following another WMU three and out, Michigan QB Cade McNamara found Ronnie Bell for a 76 yard touchdown to put the Wolverines up 17-7 and instantly shifted the momentum in the favor of the Maize and Blue. The Broncos weren’t able to respond, going three and out yet again. And yet again, Michigan capitalized, need only three plays to find the end zone again, this time courtesy of a 22 yard TD run by RB Hassan Haskins. The Wolverines were able to add a field goal before half time and found themselves up 27-7 going into the break.
The results in the second half were much of the same. The Broncos picked up two first downs on their first drive, but were unable to sustain it. Wolverines RB AJ Henning went 74 yards for a TD on the second play of the ensuing drive, and Michigan quickly found itself up 33-7 (the two point conversion failed). The next drive provided a small glimmer of hope for Western, as they went 53 yards in nine plays and approached the Michigan red zone. After a sack stalled the drive, Broncos kicker Parker Sampson had his 40 yard FG blocked, thwarting Western’s bets scoring opportunity since their opening drive of the game.
At this point, Michigan started to empty their bench, as backup true freshman QB JJ McCarthy led the Wolverines offense on their next drive. McCarthy did provide one highlight in his performance to show why he was the fifth highest rated QB in the class of 2021, finding WR Daylen Baldwin for an absurd 69-yard TD in the fourth quarter, scrambling and firing the ball back across his body while running to his right. It was a heck of a display for a true freshman.
Finding themselves down 47-7 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos did display some fight. Eleby led Western down the field for a 10 play, 75 yard drive, which he capped off with a very nice throw to Corey Crooms for a 27 yard TD to make it 47-14. That would ultimately be your final tally.
Not many Broncos fans believed that Western could walk in to Ann Arbor and walk out with a victory. Even with that said, this was a disappointing performance for the Broncos. Despite their veteran laden roster, Western was unable to keep up with the Wolverines talent.
The Wolverines outgained the Broncos 550-317, and the Western defense was especially prone to big plays. Michigan had three TD’s of over 60 yards, and the Michigan skill position players seemed to find daylight in the Broncos secondary all game. The story wasn’t much better in the run game, as the Maize and Blue gashed Western for 334 yards on 43 carries, good for 7.8 yards per tote.
Offensively, there were moments of competence. The Broncos first drive of the game was by far their best, and Eleby did not look out of his depth against Big Ten talent. The sophomore QB ultimately finished 20/37 for 191 yards and a TD. That’s certainly not the efficiency we’re used to from Eleby, though he did avoid turning the ball over and was plagued by quite a few drops from his receivers. The run game was not as effective as the Broncos had hoped, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry and finishing the day with 126 yards on the ground. There are a number of areas for improvement on both sides of the ball for Western, though the offense seems to be ahead of the defense at this early junction of the season.
There was one notable injury for the Broncos, as WR Skyy Moore sustained a leg injury in the second quarter and did not return. That’s certainly not ideal to lose your presumed leading receiver in week one, though Corey Crooms (4 catches, 58 yards and a TD) and Bryce Nunnelly (7 catches, 52 yards) stepped up in his absence.
The Broncos return home to Kalamazoo next week and look to bounce back against the FCS Illinois State Redbirds. Kick at Waldo Stadium is set for 5:00 pm EST.