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2022 Non-Conference Opponent Primer: Western Michigan Broncos

A home game against Pitt headlines the Western Michigan non-conference schedule. The Broncos will be playing with house money against Michigan State and have a very even matchup with San Jose State on the road.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Nevada at Western Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Broncos were on the field was in the Quick Lane Bowl against a depleted Nevada team, ending the season on a positive note in front of a friendly home state crowd to finish 8-5 on the season. It wasn’t overwhelmingly positive, but still a good season nonetheless.

After the bowl game, Kaleb Eleby and Skyy Moore declared for the draft. The number two receiver on the team, Jalen Hall, transferred to Western Kentucky. That trio plus normal attrition means there are a lot of new faces on the offensive side of the ball. The defense didn’t turn over nearly as much and a couple of key departures and being patched over by transfers from Purdue.

Bill Connely measures roster turnover with a metric that counts statistical production or snap counts. The Broncos come in 124th out of 131 teams, 130th on offense and 50th on defense. The offense is very likely to take a step back.

Skyy Moore was a second-round pick, but his value was enhanced by Eleby, who had total command of the WMU offense. Replacing Eleby will be the first priority and the most important to get right.

Jeff Thorne is the new offensive coordinator this season after a season where Tim Lester used co-coordinators. Greg Whalen and former Bronco Donald Celiscar are additions to the coaching staff as well.

Western Michigan has fresh faces in key roles. The 2022 season will be a trial by fire and a test of the Tim Lester process.

A typical schedule has four non-conference matchups to start the season, but WMU has a conference game in week two against Ball State. Here’s a look at their non-conference matchups.

Friday, Sept. 2: WMU at Michigan State Spartans

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pitt v Michigan State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Spartan Stadium holds 75,000 fans and it will be packed on the opening night of the 2022 football season for both Western Michigan and Michigan State. In that environment, the Broncos will break in their new starting quarterback, in front of a national audience on ESPN.

It will be a tall task in a place that has not been friendly to WMU. Michigan State has won 14 of 16 matchups between the two programs including the most recent game in 2019 by a score of 51-17.

The Spartans return a solid core of players but have to replace some key pieces that were drafted this spring, like Kenneth Walker III, the 6th place finisher in the 2021 Heisman voting. Wide receiver Jalen Nailor, tight end Connor Heyward and offensive tackle AJ Arcuri were also drafted from the 2021 Spartan squad.

Their top receiver Jayden Reed and quarterback Payton Thorne are going to be familiar faces for the Broncos. Jayden Reed played the 2018 season in Kalamazoo and nearly had an 800-yard season with eight touchdowns. Payton Thorne was a Tim Lester commit until Michigan State came knocking late in the cycle and he flipped.

WMU needs to find success in the running game, and a physical Spartan defense will know it’s coming, while a new quarterback gets their feet underneath them. Michigan State will need Reed and Thorne to be productive during their search for a running back and a second pass-catching option.

The Broncos are playing with house money and getting out with no injuries will be a win.

Saturday, Sept. 17: WMU at Pittsburgh Panthers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Western Michigan at Pitt Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After an upset win last season, Broncos head coach Tim Lester said his offense “knew exactly what they were going to get” from the Pitt defense in the post-game press conference. Pat Narduzzi might mix up the defensive scheme a little bit ahead of the home opener for the Broncos in 2022.

Kaleb Eleby, Corey Crooms and Skyy Moore terrorized the Panther secondary on their way to a 44-41 win. It was the first meeting between the two teams, and the result makes less sense as more time passes. At the time it seemed like Narduzzi might not be getting the most from his players, and WMU might finally put together a MAC West Championship season.

At the end of the season, however, Pitt claimed the ACC title in 2022 and the Broncos won a single game against MAC West opponents. It doesn’t make sense.

Kenny Pickett is still in Pittsburgh, but playing for the Steelers, while cornerback Damarri Mathis also left in the draft. Outside of those two departures, Pitt returns a majority of their production from 2021 and came in 31st in Bill Connely’s returning production metric.

Pitt will be coming off of a big home game with Tennessee and WMU will be coming home after their conference opener at Ball State. Both have some letdown potential, but Western should be up for their home opener. Unlike the Michigan State game, there is a little bit of pressure to win this game with last season's result.

Saturday, Septr. 24: WMU at San Jose State Spartans

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose State Spartans came to Kalamazoo in week four of 2021 and the Broncos shut them down. The defense held the Spartans to 119 yards in a 23-3 win.

It was the first meeting between these two programs and their week four matchup this season completes their scheduled home and home series.

San Jose State will be coming off of a bye after playing Auburn and the Broncos will be a week removed from their game against Pitt. The Spartan’s season sets up really well on paper with an FCS tune-up to open the season, a challenging pay game, a bye week to correct schematic issues and finally a game that will be a good measuring stick for both teams.

Both teams return a majority of players on their starting defenses from a year ago and have big gaps to fill on offense. Nick Starkell didn’t finish the season at quarterback due to an injury he sustained against the Broncos last season and now he’s graduated off the roster.

Despite replacing a majority of their offensive starters, the Spartan's depth chart is filled with seniors and should be an experienced group. On the defensive side of the ball, they have new faces in the secondary, which might be the preferable place against a run-first Bronco offense.

Both teams really want this win and the Broncos might need it. Bowl eligibility gets easier with two wins from the non-conference games and that could be on the line for Western in this game.

Saturday, Oct. 1: New Hampshire Wildcats at WMU

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Elon at New Hampshire Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The last non-conference game of the season for the Broncos is their FCS opponent, a rarity in modern schedules, as New Hampshire comes to Kalamazoo for the first meeting between these two schools.

New Hampshire’s head coach of 15 years, Sean McDonnell retired after the 2021 season and the head coach for this season comes from his staff. McDonnell took a medical leave and did not coach in 2019, with Rick Santos taking the interim head coach duties.

Now after two more seasons under McDonnell, Santos is the new, permanent, head coach.

The Wildcats started last season 3-0 and finished 3-8. They shared one opponent with the Broncos in Pitt and gave up 77 points. If the Broncos can’t put this one in the W column the expectations for the season need to be lowered greatly.

Is a game with Eastern Michigan a week later distracting enough to open the door for New Hampshire? Probably not, but the season will be a third over by the time this game is played. The Broncos are moving into MAC play the rest of October and, everyone’s favorite, MACtion in November.