The opening weekend for the vast majority of the college football landscape is finally here, and the Broncos have their hands full right out of the gate.
The Michigan State Spartans host Western Michigan on Friday night. The last time these two played each other was in 2019, and Michigan State wore some hideous jerseys. Look at these things.
The Spartans and their lime green pants beat the Broncos 51-17 that night. It was a convincing win in almost every area of the game, as they built a 31-7 lead by halftime and held LeVante Bellamy to 44 rushing yards.
That offseason Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio parted ways and they hired their current head coach Mel Tucker. The Spartans went 2-5 in the unique 2020 season and exploded in 2021 for eleven wins.
The Broncos have been a combined 18-11 under head coach Tim Lester since that game. A loss to Northern Illinois kept them out of the MAC Championship game in 2019, and a loss against Ball State provided the same fate in 2020.
There is more to the history between these programs than the on-field performances.
In 2018, WMU had a break-out freshman wide receiver Jayden Reed. Last season, Reed caught 59 passes for more than 1,000 yards for the Spartans. Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne was committed to Western Michigan until Michigan State came in with a late offer in the 2019 class as well. A season later, La’Darius Jefferson transfers from Michigan State to the Broncos and has rushed for 1,460 yards in two seasons. The through-lines continued even into this past offseason, as the Broncos added offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne to their coaching staff, who just happens to be Payton’s father. The connective tissue between these programs is much stronger than what meets the eye.
Michigan State enters the season as the 15th-ranked team in the nation in the Associated Press poll, while the Broncos have been picked to finish fourth in the MAC West by the media. The teams are in different places, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue. Let's get into these teams and what they will bring Friday night.
- Time and Date: Friday, September 2, 2022, at 7:00 pm Eastern time
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan
- Spread/Total: The Spartans are a 23-point favorite with an over/under spread of 54.5 points per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Michigan State leads the all-time series 14-2 and is on a twelve-game win streak. The last Western Michigan win was in 1919.
Getting to know the Spartans
The Spartans were a pretty balanced team on paper last season, with the offense ranked 31st and the defense 30th in the SP+ rankings. The offense leaned on running back Kenneth Walker III, which was a good idea, to put it mildly. He ended up being a Heisman finalist and rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns.
This season, the passing game needs to improve from good to great to keep the offense from regressing. Quarterback Payton Thorne was solidly in the second tier of Big Ten quarterbacks at the end of the season and had his ups and downs. He had big games against Maryland and Rutgers but struggled against Ohio State (who doesn’t) and Indiana.
Former Bronco Jayden Reed will be his best weapon this season after picking up 59 catches for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns. His production can improve, but realistically, the gains will be found in replacing Jalen Nailor at the number two receiver position, after Nailor was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2022 NFL Draft. Tre Mosley is the leading candidate for the tall task of improving the wide receiver output, along with new faces behind him.
The running game isn’t going to fall off of a cliff, but the line needs to replace three starters and Walker is a special talent. Upperclassmen are in place to step into the offensive line, but there is risk in that position group. The running backs coming in to take over are Jarek Broussard from Colorado and Jalen Berger from Wisconsin. Broussard is a capable power five running back and led the Buffaloes in rushing in 2021.
The offense has questions to answer to avoid regression. However, the bottom will not fall out on the unit and the Spartan offense should be fine. Western Michigan will have more than enough issues to work through with this offense in week 1.
The defense is an interesting case. They were good, not great, as a group in most areas, but they struggled to force incomplete passes and gave up too many plays through the air.
The front seven did a good job limiting the run, placing 43rd in the nation in success rate allowed on running plays, and 10th in limiting explosive runs. Limiting the explosive plays extended to the passing game as well and were 20th best in limiting explosive plays through the air.
The problem the defense faced was allowing too many completions and successful passing plays. There are a lot of reasons why teams can be completing a ton of passes but lack of pressure didn’t seem to be the issue. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in sacks and sack yardage.
Perhaps the averages are skewed by allowing CJ Stroud to throw for 432 yards on 32-of-35 passes and Aidan O’Connell to throw for 536 yards on 40-of-54. Maybe those performances are emblematic of the overall issue.
The defense runs a 4-2-5 scheme and returns four starters in the secondary. The one new projected starter is a transfer from Georgia who started three games for them last season. It’s possible that a year of experience and an offseason together could get the secondary to gel and improve. It’s equally possible that the same issues are present in the same players.
In the front six, four starters return and the rest of the two deep is patched up with transfers. Michigan State sends players to the NFL from their defense with regularity and none were taken in the draft in April. Only three starters need to be replaced and none were generational talents. Whether that is good or bad is yet to be seen.
The defense should be a solid unit for the Spartans this season. Can essentially the same unit plus a handful of transfers fix the one issue they had last year without sacrificing other areas? Time will tell.
The predictions out there seem correct. This version of Michigan State is a good team but probably a step behind where they were last season.
Getting to know the Broncos
On the opposite sideline, the Broncos look to play spoiler in the primetime game Friday night.
The best unit Western Michigan has is the front seven. Specifically, the starting linebackers all return from the 2021 season and two of them made the All-MAC teams. Corvin Moment and Zaire Barnes return for their senior seasons and they are joined by 2021 starter Ryan Selig, a junior. Barnes and Moment were making players behind the line of scrimmage with regularity last season and need to continue to do so.
Defensive end Ali Fayad, MAC defensive player of the year, and defensive tackle Ralph Holley were extremely productive while leading the front seven. The pressure they were able to bring kept the linebackers free to make plays. Capable backups step into their spots and the returning players need to raise their game to maintain the pressure from 2021.
The defensive backfield sees some turnover but also gets players back from injury. Safety Bricen Garner was an All-MAC first team in 2020 and made it four games into the season before getting injured. Cornerback DaShon Bussell had a season-ending injury in week two. Both are back at full strength this season.
As a unit, the defense had the exact opposite problem as the Spartans. They were an efficient unit that got off the field pretty regularly but allowed the easy touchdown too often. The Broncos struggled with explosive plays through the air and on the ground and it was the biggest reason they finished 1-4 against MAC West teams in 2021.
The offense is punctuated by turnover at almost every position. The most significant change is the transition from Kaleb Eleby to Jack Salopek. Eleby left a year of eligibility on the table and went into the NFL draft. Salopek has won the job so far but that’s hardly set in stone. Alabama transfer Stone Hollenbach came in to compete for the job and has spent camp competing for the backup position.
The offensive line graduated three senior starters and has youth to step in. The two returners started every game last year and need to provide the leadership of the position group. They will take the left tackle and center positions, the two most important.
Out wide, the Broncos have almost complete turnover. Jaylen Hall transferred to Western Kentucky, Skyy Moore was drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs and Bryce Nunnelly graduated. The only non-running back that caught passes and returns is Corey Crooms. Two Power Five transfers were brought to Kalamazoo to play immediately. Both are far removed from their high school days, but they are more highly rated than most WMU recruits at the receiver position. Neither got a chance at real playing time and now are getting their shot with the Broncos.
The only consistency in the offense is the running backs. Sean Tyler returns after a 1,150 yard season and La’Darius Jefferson ran for 836 yards. Both will be the focal point early in the season for this offense, which may be hampered by everyone knowing it’s coming. Salopek and the passing game need to prove they at least need to be respected for the running backs not to face stacked boxes.
The Broncos are going to lean on their defense to keep them in games, especially this one. If the defense struggles at any point, it’s almost certain doom for the Broncos. The offense is going to do everything they can to be a pleasant surprise, but it’s probably too tall an order to click immediately against this defense.