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What We Learned from Western Michigan’s 35-13 loss to Michigan State

Explosive plays doomed the Broncos defense, a continuation of an issue from the 2021 campaign, while the offense flashed some decent potential in bursts.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Western Michigan drew a tough Week 1 matchup in Michigan State, who entered the Friday night game ranked 15th in the nation. The Spartans won 35-13; with that score, Michigan State could’ve been in total control. They were not.

Early in the fourth quarter, the teams were separated by eight points with the Broncos having scored ten unanswered points and in possession of the ball. The Spartans would finish the game with 134 yards on nine plays and two touchdowns. The first touchdown finished an eight-play, 91-yard drive that took the momentum and hope from the Broncos and sealed the game.

The advanced stats paint a different picture. If WMU had won the game with the stats they finished with, it would have been the steal of the season. Undoubtedly, the fourth quarter would go differently and the stats would be different, but as it is the Spartans have a 98 percent post-game win expectancy.

Explosive plays, field position gives Michigan State the win

The Spartans had the edge by a wide margin in three main areas of advanced statistics.

The average starting field position for Michigan State was their own 35. The average for the 2021 season is the 29-yard line. Being six yards better isn’t exceptional, but in contrast to Western Michigan, it is. The Bronco's average starting field position was their own 21. A 14-yard advantage in field position means Michigan State had a much easier path to a touchdown or field goal attempt on each drive

That advantage comes from Michigan State’s incredible punter, turnovers and WMU’s inability to flip the field when the offense stalled. Michigan State’s sixth-year punter Bryce Baringer averaged 50.5 yards per punt and sent one punt 70 yards. When the Bronco defense did their job, Baringer and the punt team made sure that they had a long way to go.

Michigan State scored touchdowns on five drives and each was punctuated by explosive plays. The explosive play wasn’t always the play that scored, but the least explosive drive had an eleven-yard rush and, two plays later, a 13-yard touchdown pass.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

The explosive plays bled into another important advanced stats category, yards per play. The Spartans held an 8.3 yards per play to 4.4 yards per play advantage. This is the advantage that puts the post-game win expectancy at 98%. A nearly four-yard-per-play advantage is a strong indicator of a win and extremely difficult to overcome.

Once Michigan State punted to Western Michigan with a 21-13 score, these differences became more extreme. The Broncos ran 17 plays for a paltry 44 yards, while Michigan State ran 13 plays for 158 yards. Two of their drives ended in touchdowns and the last ended the game.

Not everything requires advanced metrics to explain how the Spartans won. Two Bronco drives made it to the redzone and ended in relative disaster. WMU got a first down at the MSU eight-yard line. On third-and-goal from the three-yard line, the Western running back Abdus-Salaam rushed for a yard. Tim Lester has shown aggressiveness in 4th and goal situations, and it’s likely the Broncos attempt a conversion. However, the play was flagged for holding and the ball was fumbled to the defense on the next play.

In the third quarter, the Broncos were in the redzone again and redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Salopek threw his first collegiate touchdown pass to Corey Crooms to make it a 21-17 game. The touchdown was taken off the board by an ineligible receiver penalty and the Broncos had to settle for a field goal. It was progress but touchdowns win games, not field goals.

Bronco Offense: lacked efficiency and too many sacks

The Broncos had thirteen drives Friday night and only one ended in the endzone. Understanding a problem is the first step to fixing it. The first question to ask is always “What happened?”

The first categorization of drives is successful versus unsuccessful. Successful drives end in touchdowns and unsuccessful drives do not.

Based on that, the one successful drive was a success due to explosive plays. The Broncos moved the ball well, converting a 4th and 1, to get to midfield. Then running back Sean Tyler exploded for 45 yards to the Michigan State four. One play later he scored on a four-yard rush.

That’s it for the good. The unsuccessful drives had a few more reasons for failure.

Failure Mode Count
Behind the Chains 4
Tackle For Loss 3
Penalty 2
Failed to Finish Drive 1
Turnover 1

Getting behind the chains is the effect of a tackle for loss, so let's define the difference for the purpose of this analysis. When a drive failed due to getting behind the chains, that means the efficiency fell off. Whether it was a short run or incomplete passes, the offense went forward but not enough.

When the defense makes a tackle for a loss or a sack, that’s a different failure. The reason the drive failed is functionally the same, but fixing inefficiency is different than stopping negative plays.

Failing to finish drives means settling for field goals. Field goals aren’t bad, but they certainly don’t feel good when there’s more points to be found. Especially in this game for the Broncos, getting seven instead of three in a 21-10 game goes a long way to pulling the upset.

Four drives ended due to inefficiency, and three more ended due to negative plays. Some inefficiency is expected in football games but not on one-third of the drives. Salopek was sacked a total of seven times and the drives in the fourth quarter especially were disrupted by sacks.

I’m confident that without the penalty on third-and-goal from the three-yard line, the Broncos do not fumble the ball on the next play and they go for the endzone on fourth-and-two. That drive and the drive that had a touchdown negated were effectively ended by the penalties. In other words, to fix those drives, fix the penalties.

The drive that stalled out and ended in a field goal and the drive that ended in a turnover were important, but not the priority to focus on as an area to improve. The fumble by Sean Tyler on the Michigan State 39 was a missed opportunity for the Broncos, but the Spartans didn’t turn it into points.

The Broncos were built on efficiency in 2021, almost to a fault. When they fail to be efficient and cannot sustain a drive, like Friday, they don’t have the explosiveness to make up for it. Efficiency is an area that will improve. There won’t be a defense in the MAC with athletes like Michigan State’s defense. Salopek will improve and become more consistent than in his first start, but the work needs to be put in on the practice field and film room for that to materialize.

Bronco Defense: Highly efficient with too many breakdowns

To start with the positives, the Bronco defense forced three three-and-outs and a five-play punt from the Michigan State offense. There needed to be more punts forced, but they also forced two turnovers and got a gift in a missed field goal.

The analysis is the same, drives are sorted by touchdown allowed or no touchdown allowed. Then each group is subdivided to figure out why there is or is not a touchdown.

Drive Ender Count
Behind the Chains 4
Tackle For Loss 2
Turnover 1

The Broncos did a good job forcing the Spartans into third and long situations, then getting off the field. The four drives that are “Behind the Chains” successes for the Broncos had third down yardages of 10, 6, 5 and 7. Each drive ended in an incompletion except one. Michigan State was forced into a passing situation on 3rd and 5, and quarterback Payton Thorne was intercepted by Keni-H Lovely at the Western Michigan 10-yard line.

The first drive of the game was ended by a great solo tackle by defensive tackle Braden Fiske. Fiske held contain on the end of the line and let Michigan State wide receiver Daniel Barker run right to him on a sweep.

Michigan State’s missed field goal came after defensive end Andre Carter sacked Thorne for a seven-yard loss on 2nd and 4. The 3rd and 11 pass fell incomplete and the drive was over.

The Broncos showed proficiency in forcing long downs and making negative plays, just as they did in 2021. The one turnover that wasn’t situationally induced was another great play by Fiske. Running back Jalen Berger was wrapped up and pulled onto a pile of linemen and defenders. An argument could be made for stopped forward progress, but before the play could be whistled dead, Fiske balled a fist and punched the ball out. Aaron Wofford fell on it, and seven plays later, the Broncos were in the endzone.

Unfortunately, the weaknesses for the Broncos are the same as last season. The five touchdown drives were all headlined by explosive plays. Whether by design or circumstance, the Spartan passing attack went right after Dorian Jackson. He had a tough game and got beat in single coverage twice for long touchdowns. The first was to Germie Bernard for 44 yards.

The second was by Keon Coleman, with maybe a slight push-off.

To make his day worse, his backup, Lovely, comes in and intercepts a pass during his second series.

Two of the other three explosive drives were through the air and appeared to be breakdowns by safeties. Wide receiver Daniel Barker made a spectacular one-handed catch to beat transfer safety Gio Vonne Sanders for a 13-yard touchdown. There’s not much to be done against that.

The last touchdown of the game got past the safeties in the middle of the field and without a wider view of the play, it’s hard to tell what happened. Michigan State took a shot at the endzone and Western seemed to be betting on underneath throws to kill the clock. It’s reasonable but incorrect.

The remaining drive was an explosive play where the Broncos got caught being too aggressive against the run.

Linebacker Corvin Moment walked up to the line and got caught by the Michigan State center while the backside cornerback blitzed. The two remaining linebackers overpursued and left a huge cutback lane. The cornerback on that side was behind the line of scrimmage and unable to make the stop after a medium gain. The receiver that the cornerback left went downfield to block a safety and then it was a footrace. That corner was Anthony Romphf, a Purdue transfer, that got into pursuit and showed exceptional speed to eventually push the running back out of bounds at the seven-yard line. Four plays later, the Spartans converted a 4th and goal for a touchdown.

It doesn’t matter if the secondary got lost in single coverage, called poorly timed blitzes or simply had miscommunication issues: the Bronco defense cannot continue to give away easy points and expect to win games.

With inexperience across the board on offense, that unit will have ups-and-downs. The defense needs to be consistent and not consistently give up easy scores.

They’ll hope to correct these issues when they take on Ball State in an early conference matchup on Sept. 10.