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What We Learned: Takeaways from WMU’s season opening 47-14 loss to Michigan

There were a few positives in the Broncos loss in Ann Arbor, but Tim Lester’s squad has some questions to answer heading into week two

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

Saturday’s result in Ann Arbor was certainly not the outcome that Western Michigan fans were hoping for, as the Wolverines pulled away from the Broncos in the second quarter on their way to a 47-14 victory at the Big House. While that final score may indicate a blowout, there were some positive signs for the Broncos. What silver linings can be taken away from this defeat? What questions does the WMU coaching staff face heading into the week two matchup with Illinois State? Let’s take a look:

The offense is going to be fine.

Despite only scoring 14 points, there were moments in this game where the Broncos offense looked like they matched up with the Wolverines. Western’s first drive of the game was their best, going 75 yards in 10 plays and taking over four minutes off the clock while doing so. The drive saw QB Kaleb Eleby go 5-of-7 for 54 yards, and even more encouraging was the fact that the offensive line gave him ample time to throw when he dropped back. The offensive line also got great push on RB La’Darius Jefferson’s two-yard TD run to cap the drive.

Eleby did not look intimidated or over his head in this game. We did not get the typical efficiency we see from him (he finished 20-of-37 for 191 yards and a TD), but he did not turn the ball over and made good decisions throughout the game. The offense only managed 319 yards in this one, well below their average output from last season. As we move into conference play, I expect their numbers will climb. This is still an explosive passing game with plenty of talent.

The run game was a struggle most of the day, with the Broncos averaging only 3.9 yards per carry. While the output may not have been consistent, there were moments where the offensive line performed capably in the run game, with the aforementioned La’Darius Jefferson TD run as a prime example. I think much of the struggles of the Broncos in this one can be chalked up to the talent disparity; even as Michigan has performed below expectations the last few years, they are still a quality Big Ten team loaded with Big Ten talent. As the Broncos get into conference play, their veteran-laden roster will adjust and perform accordingly. I do not think offense will be a struggle moving forward.

The rush defense MUST get better.

While I think the struggles on offense will be solved as the Broncos progress through the season, some of the issues on defense are a bit more alarming.

This was a defense plagued by inconsistency last year, and they were not able to match up with the Wolverines in the ground game on Saturday. Michigan racked up 335 rushing yards on 43 carries, good for 7.8 yards per attempt. If you’re giving up almost eight yards per carry on the ground, you’re not going to stop many offenses, and you’re not going to win many football games. Quality depth on the defensive line was a concern coming into the season, and that concern made itself apparent on Saturday. Ralph Holley (three tackles, one TFL, one sack) and Ali Fayad (six tackles) had nice games, but were unable to get consistent penetration into the Wolverines backfield.

Holley’s sack was the only sack of the day for the Broncos defense, and Michigan was consistently able to get their backs through to the second level of the defense before facing any contact. Linebackers AJ Thomas and Ryan Selig led the team in tackles, mostly because of this issue. Holley and Fayad are veteran stalwarts on the defensive line. Other, young lineman are going to have to step up around them to help solidify the rush defense.

The defense must avoid the big play.

Another issue with the Broncos defense on Saturday was their tendency to allow the big play. The momentum of the game swung in the Wolverines favor in the second quarter, when QB Cade McNamara found WR Ronnie Bell for a 76 yard touchdown to put the Wolverines up 17-7. Michigan never looked back from that point onward. Three of Michigan’s six touchdowns on the day came on plays of 60 yards or more, and though the Wolverine’s only completed 13 passes, they averaged over 16 yards per play on those attempts.

For a defense with so much veteran talent, broken tackles and blown assignments were a problem throughout the game. This needs to be cleaned up if Western wants to have the type of season they’re capable of having.

It’s not time to be hitting the panic button just yet if you’re a Western Michigan fan. Expecting a victory in Ann Arbor was probably too much to ask of this group, though the final margin in this game was certainly a disappointment. Facing a Michigan team with a ton of question marks, especially on offense, there was reason to believe the Broncos could keep this game close.

At the end of the day, it came down to the talent disparity between the two teams, and the Broncos still have just as much talent as just about anyone in the MAC. I anticipate this team will find their stride over the next few weeks and will be firing on all cylinders by the time conference games are upon us. Western gets their first chance to right the ship this coming Saturday, when the FCS Illinois State Redbirds visit Kalamazoo. Kickoff at Waldo Stadium is set for 5:00 EST.