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2023 MAC Football Week 9 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos at Eastern Michigan Eagles

Eastern Michigan has a big game against Western Michigan at home that they need to win to stay alive in the MAC West race.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Kent State at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eastern Michigan (4-4, 2-2 MAC) hosts Western Michigan (2-6, 1-3 MAC) this Saturday and really needs to win this game. The Eagles were picked second in the Preseason MAC Coaches Poll and the 2-2 start in MAC games is not where they wanted to be. Prognostication is hard, but head coach Chris Creighton has been consistently building the Eastern Michigan program to this point. It wasn’t a shock to see them in second place behind Toledo, and that really says something.

The Eagle’s 2-2 start in conference play has them in the middle of the MAC West— but behind Northern Illinois and Toledo. The loss last week to Northern Illinois puts the Eagles behind them in a tie-break scenario and Toledo is the best team in the conference so far.

They cannot lose to Western Michigan at home and call this season a step forward.

I would never turn that statement into anything more than it is. Chris Creighton should have that job as long as he wants it, almost no exceptions. His ability to take a “have-not” program and turn it into a consistent bowl team is incredible.

Western Michigan is in a different place in the development cycle, which is why the 2-6 Broncos being three-point favorites on the road raises eyebrows. They’ve been competitive in their last five games but only converted one into a win.

Where do the Broncos hold the edge? What have they changed to earn the favorable line? Are the Eagles the pick? Let’s get into it!

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 28th, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time
  • Location: Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Michigan
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Gambling considerations: Western Michigan is favored by 2.5 points, and the over/under is set at 48, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 34-22-2 over Eastern Michigan. The Eagles have won the last four meetings by an average margin of 10 points.
  • Last meeting: Eastern Michigan won 45-23 in a game that was never close. EMU had a 35-7 lead at halftime with three Samson Evans first-half touchdowns.

When Western Michigan has the ball:

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

The Broncos have the best matchup on paper they’ve had since Week 5 against Ball State. Eastern Michigan has allowed teams to grind them down the field running the ball and Western Michigan has the offensive line and the running backs to do just that. If Jalen Buckley and Zahir Abdus-Salaam are finding five yards per carry on the ground, they will keep the ball on the ground.

Eastern Michigan has trouble knocking their opponents off schedule despite linebacker Joe Sparacio leading the MAC in tackles. He’s been everywhere, but rarely making stops behind the line. The Bronco offense has been smart and effective with their situational play calling to avoid negative plays and that should continue. The Bronco offense is 48th in the nation in avoiding havoc plays (tackles-for-loss, sacks, interceptions, passes broken up) and the Eagles are 82nd in creating them. If either unit has a stellar performance, havoc plays could be a major factor.

The Eagles do have the advantage in passing situations on paper, but that might not represent where the Broncos are right now. For the first half of the season, the quarterback position was an open competition. Jack Salopek started the first two games, Treyson Bourguet started the next three and then Salopek and Bourguet each started a game that was finished by Hayden Wolff. Wolff has won the job and has been the best pure passer of the three quarterbacks.

Last week, Kenneth Womack emerged as Hayden Wolff’s favorite target and it’s a solid choice. Womack is a transfer from FCS Sacred Heart and leads the Broncos with 49 receptions and 438 yards. 31 of those catches came in the last three weeks with Wolff leading the offense. He leads all non-running backs in percentage of touches for their team.

The WMU passing attack is at its best right now, but the Eastern Michigan secondary breaks up passes with the best teams in the MAC. Kempton Shine and Daiquan White have each broken up eight passes so far this season and are tied for fourth most in the conference. Bennett Walker and Quentavious Scandrett don't knock as many away, but they do lead the defense in interceptions with three and two, respectively. Mikah Coleman has four sacks on the season and six tackles for loss to lead the front seven in both categories.

The Eagles will force their opponent to grind them to the endzone with long drives and it’s worked. Their offense unfortunately hasn’t been able to generate the offense for it to pay off.

The stats say that both teams are good at third/fourth-and-short situations, scoring or preventing points in scoring positions and explosive plays on the ground. Jalen Buckley can wear a defense down if he gets 25 carries and is effective. It shouldn't surprise anyone that he would break a big run in that many carries. The Broncos are hot and cold when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the redzone. Penalties and missed field goals have limited their points, so I would expect the offense to take risks on fourth down. The Broncos will use their “T” backfield formation on third-and-one, but the Eagles have gotten off the field when they know the run is coming.

If the Broncos offense keeps getting better they will find enough points to win, but the Eagles defense might be another task that’s a little too tall for them right now.

When Eastern Michigan has the ball:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 UMass at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the age-old question, the moveable object or the stoppable force?

The Bronco defense is moveable. They are 116th in the nation in line yards allowed and have trouble knocking opposing offenses off schedule. The Eagles are 129th in offensive SP+ and average 254 yards of offense per game.

The Eagles don’t have many strong advantages, but one they will have on Saturday is their ability to convert short-yardage runs into first downs. Samson Evans is a bruising running back who falls forward for extra yardage. The Broncos aren’t the worst in the nation in the same situation, but they’re not good either. They’ve struggled to get off the field in third-down situations in general, but short yardage is a particular problem for them.

The Bronco secondary and defensive line is excellent at breaking up passes. That’s how they get stops and force punts. Surprisingly, they also have the edge in explosive plays, but it’s almost by default. Eastern Michigan is 132nd out of 133 teams in generating explosive plays, especially through the air.

Most of the other metrics that I look at are extremely close and both units are in the lower quarter of the rankings without adjusting for opponents. The difference between being 80th and 100th in the nation in Stuff Rate is technically an advantage, but not a significant one.

Eagles quarterback Austin Smith has been running the offense all season and has thrown only six touchdowns to five interceptions. Running back Samson Evans has been steady but not flashy with 399 yards on 93 carries. He does have six touchdowns and gets the goal-line touches. Tanner Knue is the leader of the Eagle receivers, but Hamze El-Zayat is the explosive player for the offense.

El-Zayat averages 15.3 yards per reception, 14 yards per punt return and has one kickoff returned for a touchdown. He has the ability to flip the field and make the offense's life a lot easier for the Eagles.

For the Broncos, Tate Hallock and Aaron Wofford lead the team in tackles as a pair of safeties. They are deployed aggressively and make tackles on plays that get downfield, which happens regularly. The linebackers rotate based on the situation with Donald Willis and Boone Bonnema getting to the quarterback, Jacob Wahlberg stuffing the run and Demari Roberson dropping into coverage well. He has broken up four passes and dropped what should have been his second interception of the season against Ohio.

Mason Nelson has been a nice surprise along the defensive line with five tackles-for-loss, including three sacks. Marshawn Kneeland gets most of the attention while he’s standing off the ball and lurking pre-snap, looking for a rush lane.

In a matchup this even, it is going to come down to the players and, in the Broncos case, getting the right personnel groups on the field.


I don't want to focus on the betting line but my process usually starts there. Take the spread, compare the advanced stats, adjust for injuries or other reasons why the play on the field this week wouldn’t reflect the advanced stats from this season and make my prediction. The spread was a surprise, but the guys that make those things don’t usually miss. So why is WMU favored?

I think what the line setters are seeing is a WMU team developing an offense with a toss-up matchup on the other side of the ball. The Broncos’ defense and the Eagles’ offense have not been good. The best unit to this point has been the Eagles offense but the Broncos are getting better after two competitive games against two of the best defenses in the MAC. The betting houses expect that trend to continue. Unfortunately, I see a step back on offense and a defense that is too prone to getting burned.

The Eagles still don’t explode for points, but they shorten the game with a solid running game and win with a low total. Make it:

Western Michigan 20
Eastern Michigan 21