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2023 MAC Football Week 8 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos at Ohio Bobcats

Ohio and Western Michigan meet in Athens after each team lost in week seven. Who gets the bounce back win?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Ohio Matt Lunsford-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio Bobcats (5-2, 2-1 MAC) are heavy favorites when they host the Western Michigan Broncos (2-5, 1-2 MAC) this Saturday despite a surprising loss to Northern Illinois in Week 7. The Broncos weren’t totally overmatched against Miami necessarily, but they didn’t have the firepower on either side of the ball to create an advantage.

The Bobcats allowed a season-high 23 points against NIU in large part due to two of the three interceptions that quarterback Kurtis Rourke threw in the second half and a 58-yard touchdown pass. The touchdown pass was the Huskies' third play from scrimmage in the second half and gave them a one-point lead. Two of Rourke’s interceptions gave NIU good enough field position to convert field goals.

Meanwhile, the Broncos have started the “wrong” quarterback in multiple games and did it again against Miami. Treyson Bourguet started the game after missing the prior week due to an injury but was replaced at halftime by Hayden Wolff. Wolff replaced Jack Salopek the week before and threw three touchdown passes against Mississippi State. Wolff led two point-scoring drives before the RedHawk defense put the clamps on and shut down the WMU offense.

Both teams are looking for a bounce-back performance in Week 8. How do they match up in what is expected to be a mismatch? Let’s get into it!

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 21th, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time
  • Location: Frank Solich Field at Peden Stadium in Athens, Ohio
  • Network: CBS Sports Network (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Gambling considerations: Ohio is favored by 17 points, and the over/under is set at 53, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 34-30-1 over Ohio, but both squads have had head coaching changes since the last meeting, which the ‘Cats won.
  • Last meeting: Ohio intercepted and sacked WMU quarterback Jack Salopek five times in a 33-14 win last season.

When Western Michigan has the ball:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Western Michigan at Mississippi State Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hayden Wolff seems like the logical starter when the Broncos roll into Athens. He’s been the highest performer in each of the last two games despite not starting. The Billy Cosh offense definitely has some designed quarterback running in it that Bourguet and Salopek are much better at, but Wolff has been the best passer of the group.

He passes the eye test and makes throws that the other two either aren’t asked to make— or don’t attempt. Statistically, he averages a half yard less per pass than Bourguet but has a 67 percent completion percentage compared to Bourguet’s 55%.

The Bobcat defense is the best in the MAC per ESPN’s SP+ at 48th in the nation, and they are for real. As a unit, they have allowed the lowest predicted points added from rushing plays and the seventh-lowest success rate to offense. Predicted points added (PPA) works on the idea that a four-yard play doesn’t always have the same value. Four yards on first and ten at the opponent's 20 is far more valuable than four yards on third-and-eight on your own 20 yard line. Running against the Bobcats has generated the lowest PPA in the nation.

Bryce Houston, Rayyan Buell and Keye Thompson have a combined 23.5 tackles for loss and lead a defense that leads the MAC in yards per play allowed by more than half a yard. Western Michigan has been an above-average team at preventing negative plays on offense but this Bobcat front will test them.

Explosive plays are rare, they stuff runs and don’t get pushed around, they create passing situations for opposing offenses and limit points in scoring opportunities. They are an excellent unit, full stop.

Bryce Houston is a do-it-all linebacker who leads the team in tackles, has eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. Safety Austin Brawley has intercepted two passes and cornerback Justin Birchette has broken up six passes this season.

So how do the Broncos move the ball on Saturday? It looks pretty grim. The advantages in the advanced stats they have are pretty niche. Building a game plan around power success rate and rushing explosive plays is unlikely to win the game. Plus to get to power running situations, the Broncos need to avoid getting stuffed on first and second down.

The Broncos will have to show something they haven’t shown all season and something that Ohio’s opponents haven’t been able to do either: a high-flying passing attack. The best passing offense by PPA the Bobcats have faced so far this season has been San Diego State in Week 0, and the Aztecs are not exactly an offensive juggernaut under Brady Hoke. The biggest problem is that the Broncos haven’t been able to do it either. Maybe giving Wolff the entire game is how it happens.

Jalen Buckley has been the biggest offensive asset for the Broncos this season but he might be used as a distraction, or best used after the pass has been established. Western Michigan has receivers on the outside who have been effective. Kenneth Womack leads the team in receptions and yards but hasn’t gotten into the endzone yet. Malique Dieudonne and Leroy Thomas can make big plays, but Anthony Sambucci is the receiver to watch if he’s healthy. He didn’t play last week, but defenses lose track of him more than any other Bronco receiver and he has four touchdowns to show for it.

If the Bronco offense is what they have been to this point this season, it’s going to be a long day.

When Ohio has the ball:

Ohio v Iowa State
Ohio’s TE Tyler Foster catches a touchdown last year versus Iowa State
Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

The stats suggest that Ohio is a decently potent MAC offense in 2023 that has not been particularly explosive in the run or pass game. Right now, the Bobcats rank sixth in the MAC in points per game with just over 22 and sixth in yards per game with 335 yards on average. The longest rush by a running back is 20 yards. The passing game will hit for an explosive play occasionally with four passes of 30 yards or more including a long of 50 yards to tight end Tyler Foster.

Putting the statistics into context and looking at the big picture, Ohio’s offense has been what it has needed to be to win five of its first seven games without necessarily having to put the pedal to the metal some weeks for various reasons such as dominant defensive play or inferior opponents.

At perhaps its most effective, Ohio’s offense has been a great compliment to its defense, which has been one of the elite units in the Group of Five allowing just a shade over 10 points per game. The ‘Cats have been able to minimize opponents’ opportunities against its stellar defense by converting third downs and moving the ball between the 20s while chewing up the clock, ranking nationally eighth in time of possession, 18th in third-down conversions, and 41st in first downs.

While Ohio may or may not have entered games this year with a goal of dominating time of possession, that has been the case more often than not in how games have played out.

Ohio can win the majority of its remaining games if its offense plays more like it did versus Iowa State than it did versus NIU, which is to say minimizing turnovers and penalties while controlling field position. The key in the win Iowa State game for instance is that the ‘Cats offense had no offensive penalties or turnovers which helped to establish good field position and keep the defense out of tough situations.

The crew is led by the 2022 MAC MVP QB Kurtis Rourke. With the exception of an uncharacteristic second half last week where Rourke had three interceptions, the Ohio signal caller has been effective in managing the offense by making good decisions, throwing with accuracy, and using timely scrambles to keep the chains moving.

Rourke has a trio of established receivers at his disposal who all have over 20 catches this year in Sam Wiglusz, Tyler Walton, and Miles Cross.

Expect the tight end group to chip in a few key plays in the passing game this week led by Tyler Foster and Will Kacmarek.

Ohio’s offense needs improvement in the rushing game, which has been below their standard so far this year with the two leading backs averaging under four yards per carry despite running with great effort. The Bobcats will employ a two-back system with Sieh Bangura the starter and O’Shaan Allison as the key reserve. Bangura leads the club with 362 yards and two scores while Allison has 282 yards and a score.

While Ohio always looks to mix in the run, the matchup on paper which looks to be in the ‘Cats favor is Ohio’s passing game against Western Michigan’s pass defense that is 90th nationally with 245 yards allowed per contest. Ohio should probably be able to give Rourke time to throw. While WMU’s defense is a very respectable fourth in the MAC in sacks with 16, Ohio’s offense ranks fourth nationally allowing only four sacks this year. Assisting in the Bobcats’ pass blocking is Rourke’s ability to scramble, which allows him to get past the pressure which does evade the pass blocking.


The Bronco offense has to reinvent itself to have a chance and the Ohio offense should be able to grind out drives and points. Turnovers and penalties can swing this game but without them, the seventeen-point line feels about right. I think the Bobcats build a comfortable lead with sustained drives but don’t outright bury the Broncos. The Broncos score some points but can’t find consistency to keep it close late. Make it:

Western Michigan 17
Ohio 31