It’s already Week 6 of the college football season and by the end of the week, most teams will be halfway through their seasons. The Western Michigan Broncos are going down to Starkville to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs this Saturday. It will be the fourth MAC vs. SEC game this fall.
Western Michigan is 2-3 so far this season with a win in their first and last games. The Bronco offense is clicking and has scored 73 points in their last two games. They scored 42 points in last week’s win against Ball State, throwing more passes than they have at any point this season. Star running back Jalen Buckley wasn’t 100 percent healthy and the offense was able to survive and adapt despite that..
Mississippi State is also 2-3 but their schedule has been a little bit different than Western Michigan’s. After an FCS opponent opened the season, the Bulldogs beat Arizona then lost to LSU, South Carolina and Alabama. Zach Arnett is in his first season as the head coach in Starkville after Mike Leach passed away last December. This season was always going to be a difficult transition season for the Bulldogs.
Do the Broncos stand a chance on the road in Mississippi? Let's get into it.
- Time and date: Saturday, October 6th, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: SEC Network (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi
- Gambling considerations: Mississippi State is favored by 20.5 points and the over/under is set at 56.5, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
- All-time series: This will be the first time these two teams play.
When Western Michigan has the ball:
Which Western Michigan offense are we going to see on Saturday? Is it the team that scored 31 points on Toledo and ran the ball 64 percent of the time, or the offense that threw passes on 54 percent of its plays against Ball State for 42 points?
Their playstyle has seemingly hinged on the health of Jalen Buckley, who came into week five a little banged up. He left the field twice with a noticeable limp, but the Broncos employed horizontal passes to get the ball to their other playmakers.
There are some facts of life that come into play when a MAC team plays an SEC team. The Broncos will be outmatched in most positional matchups throughout the game. Any advantages the Broncos have will be created by the scheme and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just less margin for error.
The Bulldog defense is led by a pair of preseason Athlon All-SEC linebackers. Jett Johnson leads them in almost every category. He has 59 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions. Nathaniel Watson is on the field with him and is second on the team in each of those categories. Their ability to create negative plays will need to be addressed by the Bronco offense.
The Mississippi State defense has been bad against the pass this season which is a great way for the Bronco offense to neutralize those great linebackers. Unfortunately, they’ve struggled with a consistent downfield passing attack. The Bulldogs have allowed an 84 percent completion percentage against their last three opponents, so it’s possible short, easy passes are there for the Broncos.
The ground game might be prone to getting stuffed; it happens to the Broncos too much as it is, and this Bulldog front bottles up the run. They have a high stuff rate and allow medium gains as well, but rarely allow the home run on the ground. The Bulldogs will be down one defensive lineman and could be down three by kickoff, so maybe they find more success than the advanced stats suggest. Almost all of the havoc plays created come from the front seven, so Western’s big task is managing the line of scrimmage.
The final weak spot for the Bulldog defense is a fluky one. Once their opponents get into scoring position, they can’t keep them from scoring. Western Michigan scored six touchdowns in six opportunities against Ball State a week ago. It’s a highly variable, small sample size stat, but Western Michigan can finish drives. Mississippi State has faced much better offenses, so while they have struggled it might be different on Saturday. The Broncos need that to hold true to have any kind of shot.
Western Michigan needs to take the easy yards through the air when they can get them. The quick passes from last week should be a part of the plan again, but they need to also keep Mississippi State from jumping a route and taking an interception to the house. Spotting the Bulldogs points is a recipe for disaster. The strength of the offense coming into the season was the offensive line. They will be tested again in Starkville.
When Mississippi State has the ball:
The Broncos are in trouble on this side of the ball. They allow explosive passing plays at the highest rate in the nation and the Bulldogs offense is 23rd in creating them. Some of the big plays that Western have allowed this season are breakdowns, like this one against Saint Francis. The WMU defensive backs lost track of a receiver and the quarterback found him down the field. Ball State and Syracuse did the same thing to the Broncos.
While those aren’t great, there is another kind that is worse. Occasionally, a receiver beats the Bronco defender off the line and gets some separation as they head downfield. The quarterback throws the ball deep and the defensive back is never able to get his head around and find the ball because they’re already beat. It’s either been a catch or a defensive pass interference penalty, and Mississippi State’s quarterback Will Rogers can make the Broncos pay.
The only hope the Bronco defense has is their ability to create havoc. Safety Tate Hallock has two interceptions this season and Keni-H Lovely and Demari Roberson each have one. Defensive lineman Mason Nelson has three sacks this season and the Broncos have their own pair of linebackers racking up the sacks. Boone Bonnema and Donald Willis combine for 5.5 so far this season.
The front seven needs to be able to harass Rogers and make finding his receivers difficult. Rogers ran the Leach air raid well last season but Zach Arnett wants to transition to a more balanced offense. The problem they are having is that they still have air raid personnel. They are a pass heavy team because that’s what works right now.
Rogers has 1,086 yards passing with seven touchdowns and four interceptions in 2023. The Bulldogs leading running back, Jo’Quavious Marks, has 72 carries for 420 yards with four touchdowns. He’s also a threat in the passing game with 15 catches for 112 yards. Lideatrick Griffin is Rogers’ favorite target with more than a quarter of his completions going to Griffin. The receptions are pretty spread out among the rest, but a name to watch for is Justin Rogers. He didn’t play against Alabama last week but his six-foot-four, 220-pound frame would be a matchup nightmare for the Broncos.
Mississippi State has had trouble maintaining drives, so Western Michigan’s game plan has to be to limit the possessions in this game. The more drives and plays that Mississippi State runs the more likely they are to pop the big play.
The Broncos are going to struggle to get Mississippi State off the field consistently and that ultimately dooms them. The front seven for the Broncos have had trouble generating consistent pressure against MAC teams and an SEC opponent on the road is a different animal. The Bulldogs create explosive passing plays, the one thing that the Broncos have struggled with. It doesn’t look good.
I have strange optimism that the Bronco offense doesn’t get squashed but I think the game script will get away from them and force them to press. The opponent adjusted numbers put this defense about on par with Toledo’s, but the level of athlete will be different. Drives that could might end in field goals in normal games are turned over on downs going for the endzone.
Ultimately the Broncos struggle in Starkville.
Western Michigan 17
Mississippi State 35