- Time and Date: 5:00 PM, Saturday, September 11, 2021
- Network: ESPN3
- Location: Waldo Stadium – Kalamazoo, MI
- Spread/Total: Western Michigan -11, O/U 55.5
- All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 7-1
- Last Meeting: Western Michigan 48, Illinois State 7 – August 30, 2001
The 2021 season did not get off to the start that many Western Michigan fans wanted. Expecting a victory in Ann Arbor may have been asking for too much, but fans couldn’t help but wonder why the Broncos’ performance was plagued by inconsistencies in their 47-14 loss to Michigan. There are certainly some areas that the Broncos need to improve on moving forward, and their first opportunity to do just that arrives this Saturday, as FCS foe Illinois State visits Waldo Stadium.
This is the first meeting between the two programs since 2001, which the Broncos won handily 48-7. Western Michigan is 4-0 against FCS opponents since Tim Lester took over as head coach in 2017, and Western fans would certainly like to continue that trend this Saturday. With that said, the gap between FCS and FBS squads seems to be shrinking, as six FCS squads pulled upsets over FBS opponents in week one (apologies if you’re a Washington fan reading this.)
Given this trend, this is not a game that the Broncos should take lightly. While the Western should have a talent edge in this match up, Illinois State is a solid FCS program that was in the FCS playoff quarterfinals in 2019. What do the Broncos need to clean up this week? What challenges will the Redbirds present? Let’s take a look.
Getting to Know the Redbirds
As mentioned above, Illinois State is a solid FCS program in the Missouri Valley Conference. Under head coach Brock Spack, the Redbirds reached the FCS National Championship game in 2014, and have advanced to the FCS quarterfinals three other times in the past decade (most recently in 2019). On top of that, ISU does have a recent history of pulling upsets vs FBS opponents: in 2018, the Redbirds knocked off Colorado State 35-19, and in 2016 they upset Big Ten foe Northwestern 9-7. While ISU may not be thought of in the same breath as other FCS powers such as North Dakota State or James Madison, the Redbirds are a solid, if unspectacular, FCS squad.
Looking at the 2021 Redbirds squad, this is a team that is going to play solid defense and look to control the ball with a run heavy offense.
In their season opening 49-7 win over Butler, the ISU defense was dominant, holding the Bulldogs to 305 yards of total offense despite Butler possessing the ball for over 37 minutes. The Redbirds defense was especially stout against the run, holding Butler to 137 rushing yards on 45 carries, good for just over three yards per attempt. Kenton Wilhoit and Jacob Bellizzi lead a strong linebacking corps, and both were very active on Saturday, tallying seven tackles each. On the back end, safeties Braden Price and Clayton Isbell lead a veteran secondary that looks to create turnovers. They were successful in that against Butler, with Price tallying two interceptions and Isbell grabbing one as well.
This defense seems to be predicated on generating turnovers. This helps explain the final tally in their win over Butler, as they turned the ball over four times. That’s one way to dominate a game when you lose the time of possession battle as badly as they did (Butler held the ball for 37:52, compared to 22:08 for ISU).
Offensively, this is a team that wants to establish the run. Against Butler, ISU ran the ball 34 times for 297 yards, good for 8.6 yards per attempt. Freshman RB Cole Mueller led the way, with 111 yards and two TD’s on only eight carries. Expect Kevin Brown and Nigel White to receive carries as well, as the Redbirds rotate out backs throughout the game.
QB Bryce Jefferson is a dual threat that is just as dangerous on the ground as he is through the air. Jefferson was thrust into action during ISU’s playoff run in 2019, making his first career start (and leading the Redbirds to victory) in their first round matchup against Southeast Missouri. Against Butler, he finished 8/17 for 193 yards and TD’s through the air, while also adding 37 yards and two TD’s on the ground. He brings a measure of balance and unpredictability to the Redbirds offense, and represents a threat that the Western Michigan defense will have to be ready for. He has a few big play threats at wide receiver, with Austin Nagel and Kacper Rutkiewicz both entering this game averaging over 15 yards per reception for their careers (both topped 20 yards per reception in week one).
Overall, the Redbirds racked up 491 yards of offense against Butler, good for 9.4 yards per play. Given Western Michigan’s vulnerability to the big play, one could see how this ISU offense could get going. There is talent here, and this is not a team that the Broncos can simply overlook.
Taking a Look at the Broncos after Week 1
While the final score in Ann Arbor may have been disappointing, there were some positives to take from the Broncos week one performance. The offense looked great in their first drive of the game, going 75 yards in 10 plays and finding the end zone via a two yard run from La’Darius Jefferson.
I say all of that to say: the offense is going to be just fine.
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, and I do think there will be opportunities to get behind the ISU secondary. This is an aggressive defense that wants to force turnovers. That can be a great strategy, but it also can leave you vulnerable on the backend. While Butler may not have had the talent to take advantage of this, the Broncos certainly do. Skyy Moore is questionable heading into the game, though head coach Tim Lester said that he has been practicing this week. If he’s able to go, I expect him to have a big day in this one.
While Illinois State was successful in slowing down the Bulldogs rushing attack, I don’t expect them to have the same level of success against this veteran offensive line. The run game was a struggle against the Wolverines, with the Broncos averaging only 3.9 yards per carry. I think much of the struggles of the Broncos in this one can simply be chalked up to the talent disparity. I do not see Illinois State slowing this offense down.
Defensively, the struggles worry me a bit more. This was a defense that was prone to the big play last season, and that trend re-emerged against Michigan. Three of the Wolverines scores came on plays of 60+ yards, and the Broncos veteran secondary struggled to contain Michigan receivers throughout the game. In the run game, 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 have a good time on defense.
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. Given that Illinois State has a dual threat QB and looks for the big play on offense, they certainly have the talent to take advantage of the Broncos defense. This game will provide a good litmus test to see if the WMU defense can get this issues cleaned up prior to conference play.
Illinois State is a good FCS program, and MAC teams have lost to FCS foes before. This is not a game to simply look past on the schedule for the Broncos. Issues with the big play continue to plague the WMU defense, and Illinois State has the talent on offense to take advantage. I do not think the Redbirds will be able to slow the Broncos offense down, and I anticipate Kaleb Eleby to have a big game. The Broncos will be able to score in this one, but I also think ISU will be able to find the end zone a few times. I still need to see more from the Western defense. Look for the Redbirds to keep this close for a half, before the Broncos talent ultimately prevails.
Western Michigan 40, Illinois State 21