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What We Learned from Western Michigan’s 16-10 win over Miami

Western Michigan won a game the advanced metrics said they shouldn’t have and both defenses did their parts to keep the offense in it.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Eastern Michigan at Western Michigan

Western Michigan broke a streak of disappointing performances with a 16-10 win on the road against Miami. It wasn’t a pretty win for their offense, but the defensive plan that coordinator Lou Esposito puts on the field every week finally showed what it could be.

Brett Gabbert returned to action in his first game since Week 1 and the Broncos replaced a struggling Jack Salopek with true freshman Treyson Bourguet. Both quarterbacks got reps with the first team for the first time in at least a month and it showed. Timing routes were a struggle and deep passes fell to the turf at Yager Stadium.

Both defenses forced their opponent to beat them through the air and gave their team a chance to win. It was a rare good day for MAC defenses. According to SP+, the average MAC defense ranks 108th in the nation and claims spots 125, 126, 128 and 129th.

It’s the same question: What decided this game? What was new in Week 8? And what can it tell us about the remaining weekday schedule?

Western Michigan stole this game puts together advanced box scores and the Miami RedHawks had a 75 percent post-game win expectancy. That means that if the game was replayed and the same advanced metrics were produced, the RedHawks pull out the victory 75% of the time. Things that happen one out of four times are not rare occurrences, but Miami should have won this game.

So what happened?

Despite holding advantages in success rate and explosiveness, the RedHawks went 2-of-13 on third downs. Their first conversion didn’t come until the fourth quarter when they were trailing 16-3. That failure to continue drives is the main contributor to why WMU was able to win. The RedHawks had a success rate of 41 percent for the game. That dropped to 15 percent on third downs.

The Broncos were able to accomplish that by forcing third-and-long situations and getting after Brett Gabbert in obvious passing situations. Miami running back Tyre Shelton ran for 41 yards on eight rushes which doesn’t sound too bad. One run was for 26 yards, so with the outlier removed he had seven rushes for 15 yards. Keyon Mozee was bottled up on every touch. Even with his longest rush included, he averaged less than three yards per rush.

Brett Gabbert was sacked seven times, with exactly half of those coming from linebacker Corvin Moment. When the RedHawks were forced into a passing situation, their offensive line was not up to the task.

Western Michigan has a field goal kicker now too, which certianly helps the equation.

That’s a new development for them after years of musical chairs at the position, and gave their offense some points that they wouldn’t have been able to collect in previous seasons. Palmer Domschke wasn’t perfect, but converted three of five attempts, including one from 52 yards out. Tim Lester has been extremely aggressive in fourth-down situations in plus territory in his time at Western Michigan. Dialing that back and converting drives into points in a low-scoring game was the right move this time.

Miami’s offense continues to be the weak link

Brett Gabbert came back for his first game since the season opener against Kentucky. The former MAC Freshman of the Year is clearly the best option for the offense, but he’s not an automatic fix for the issues they’ve been fighting all season.

As long as his performances improve from this week forward as he returns from injury, the passing game should be fine. His completion percentage needs to be higher than 55 percent like he was this week, but he completed 71 percent of his passes against a much better Kentucky team in his only game action of 2022 prior to this game.

Offensive line issues

The Miami offensive line struggled again, and that’s not going to help Gabbert complete a high percentage of passes. He was sacked seven times on 45 dropbacks and that doesn’t count the times he was pressured into scrambling for positive yards. Aveon Smith stepped in while Gabbert recovered and dealt with the same issue. Smith was sacked 13 times on 130 dropbacks and that’s too high.

Miami did suffer an injury and an unsportsmanlike conduct ejection on the line this particular week, but even then, these were issues going back to the start of the season.

The failure to create space in the running game showed up as well, but that’s not usually a huge problem. Miami has four running backs that have more than 25 carries this season and each average over 4.4 yards per carry. Being held to three yards per carry this week set the offense behind, and they could not recover.

Lack of havoc plays on defense

Junior defensive lineman Brian Ugwu had a good game with a sack and three total tackles for loss, but only one other play went backward for the Bronco offense on the day. The defense knocked down five passes in a productive afternoon, but what the RedHawks missed in this game was a forced turnover.

The defense has been stealing at least one possession per game and they could not force a mistake out of the Bronco offense. The turnover the RedHawks gave up forced them to need a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end of the game, and a short field is just what a struggling offense needs.

Let’s not blow this out of proportion, the defense was excellent. The Broncos didn’t go backward much, but they also didn’t move forward. A game this tight and low scoring can make it seem like the one big play the Broncos scored their touchdown on is the difference and the reason the RedHawks lost. One clutch defensive play could have made the difference in this game, but the responsibility for the loss is not on the defense.

Does WMU have a quarterback controversy?

It’s no secret that Western Michigan’s quarterback Jack Salopek has struggled this season. Last week versus Ohio, he threw five interceptions that Lester characterized as “bad passes.”

Lester made some changes leading into this week. The first was giving true freshman Treyson Bourguet the start on the road. Lester also took over play-calling duties and brought offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne out of the booth and down onto the sideline. Credit to Lester for trying to find some answers for the struggling offense.

The Broncos win and that means the offense is Bourguet’s now right?

Bourguet did not light the world on fire. He was under 50 percent passing and averaged fewer than four yards per attempt. Even for a first start at the college level, that's pretty bad. Salopek’s first start was Week 1 against Michigan State and his stat line was better. He threw 21 completions on 36 passes for a 5.4-yard average. Salopek did turn the ball over, which Bourguet did not, but Miami’s defense is not Michigan State’s.

The case for Bourguet is based on ball security as a binary and intangibles. Bourguet did not turn the ball over. Salopek has struggled with interceptions, but Bourguet had five passes deflected. They fell to the turf on Saturday, but that won’t always be the case.

The entire team looked more energized than they have in previous weeks, but that’s hard to attribute to the quarterback alone. It’s possible that Bourguet has grabbed a leadership position on the team. It could be that for the first time in three weeks they weren’t playing from behind. The wins and losses favor the true freshman but the supporting evidence does not solidify that position.

The Broncos have ten days to figure it out before a Tuesday night game at Bowling Green.

This is the defense that Lou Esposito wants every week

When defensive coordinator Lou Esposito envisions his perfect defense, this is the kind of game that he sees. It’s not that the defense allowed ten points, it’s how they limited the RedHawks.

The Broncos sacked Gabbert seven times and added two more tackles for loss in the run game. An interception would have been nice but knocking down six passes is nice. Forcing incomplete passes has been a problem for the Bronco defense and this is certainly a way to slow down the opponent.

The defense is built on the front seven handling the run, applying pressure to the QB and the back end being on their own frequently. Miami was forced to be one-dimensional and faced long third-down conversion attempts. Getting a defense in the right look is easier on third and eight, than third and three. Most of the Bronco's opponents this season have been able to find chunk plays to move the ball and put points on the board. Miami was not.

Running backs lack depth

La’Darius Jefferson left the game early last week against Ohio and was unable to get on the field at Miami. Western Michigan has used two running backs to carry the load as far back as the early PJ Fleck days. Zahir Abdus-Salaam has gotten sporadic carries this season and they haven’t been effective runs.

Against Miami, he ran the ball a season-high ten times for 28-yards. His yards per-rush average on the season is 1.7-yards.

Sean Tyler took most of the snaps and more than doubled Abdus-Salaam’s rushes, but it looks like the Broncos are in search of a back that can give him a breather. Trae Allen and Jalen Buckley are the likely next guys to get a shot.

Miami heads to Akron to play their final weekend game of the season. Akron has been pesky but is still looking for its first win against an FBS opponent.

The Broncos start their midweek games on the road against Bowling Green on Wednesday. Bowling Green is coming off a great win against Central Michigan, where they finally showed some proof of concept. They will try to keep that going against the Broncos.