Western Michigan opened the 2023 season with a 35-17 win over St. Francis (PA). The win is head coach Lance Taylor’s first as an FBS head coach and it looked pretty good for a team that many expect to struggle this season.
Right away, the Broncos showed what is to come this season from their new offense, including handing the keys to quarterback Jack Salopek. He was replaced by Treyson Bourguet halfway through the season last year and transfer Hayden Wolff joined the team over the offseason. Salopek back in the driver's seat is a surprise, but it worked out after the first drive.
The Broncos took the ball 69 yards to the SFU 10-yard line before throwing an interception in the endzone to end the drive. The ball was delivered on time but it was a toss-up on a fade route that receiver Jehlani Galloway couldn’t get a hand on. The Bronco defense stepped up and forced a three-and-out with no yards allowed.
Western Michigan’s second drive was a 60-yard march to the endzone that took 11 plays. Runningback Zahir Abdus-Salaam scored the first touchdown of the season and the first of his career on a five-yard rush.
The Broncos were fast-paced and dominated both sides of the ball until just before halftime. Saint Francis would run 11 plays for 68 yards over their next two drives resulting in three points, while the Broncos would score twice on 25 plays for 132 yards. Virginia Tech transfer running back Keshawn King and Jalen Buckley finished the drives with touchdowns of two yards and three yards respectively.
Then SFU got their feet under them for two drives and made the Broncos sweat for a moment. A defensive breakdown in the secondary allowed the Red Flashes deep threat Dawson Snyder to get behind the safeties, and I mean way behind the safeties, and score on a 77-yard catch and run.
After halftime, SFU got the ball back and moved down the field in chunks of 28, 19 and 17 yards to pull within one score.
This time is the offense’s turn to respond under pressure. Western Michigan moved deliberately and consistently down the field to put the game away. Tight end Austin Hence caught a nine-yard touchdown pass to cap an 80-yard, fifteen-play drive that ate 7:26 off the clock.
That score pushed the lead back to two possessions and effectively ended the game. Western Michigan would add another touchdown on a one-yard run by defensive end Marshawn Kneeland. (You read that right.) He essentially recommitted to the Broncos when he withdrew his name from the transfer portal and I have to believe this is the coaching staff's way to give him some shine.
The new-look offense actually didn’t look too different from the Tim Lester offense. There were more four wide-out formations, but they still ran the ball 67 times. In total, the Broncos ran 93 plays for 520 yards. That is different.
Early in the game, the Broncos were hustling to the line and snapping the ball with more than 20 seconds remaining on the play clock. Salopek was empowered to run early and ran six times for 42 yards. The pace slowed down over time and the quarterback runs went away, but that could be a decision made to not put too much on film for future opponents to see against an FCS team.
With the increased pace, the Broncos don’t make many substitutions. That leaves the running back that starts the drive on the field for the majority of the drive in most cases. Thursday was by committee with Jalen Buckley getting 30 carries, Abdus-Salaam getting 20 and King getting seven before leaving with an injury. Buckley emerged as the hot hand and finished with 194 yards and a tidy 6.5 yards per rush average. The offensive line was creating space and Buckley took advantage, especially during a 68-yard burst off tackle before being pushed out of bounds.
Western Michigan created eight scoring opportunities (a first down inside the opponent's 40-yard line) in ten drives, threatening to score almost every time they touched the ball. It was an FCS opponent, but they looked good. Coach Taylor mentioned post-game that they have some issues to work out, but a confidence-building performance in week one.
The defense looked good but had more obvious issues. They forced four three-and-outs while holding Saint Francis to less than four yards per play on seven of ten drives. They responded after the offense threw an interception and after giving up a big play that put Saint Francis in the redzone. That’s winning football.
The bad news is that the defensive scheme Lou Esposito runs is going to remain vulnerable to the big play. The first two scoring drives for SFU featured a breakdown in the secondary resulting in big plays. On third -and-11, the Broncos blitzed with six pass rushers and the inside receiver beat the safety. The pass was completed for 41 yards and set up Saint Francis for a field goal. One of the defenders was unblocked and couldn’t get to the quarterback in time to disrupt the pass.
The 77-yard touchdown pass was zone coverage with every defender looking in the backfield. Red Flash wide receiver Snyder went deep immediately off the snap and the safety on that side, Aaron Wofford, saw him and then turned his head into the offensive backfield and lost him. When quarterback Cole Doyle scrambled to his left, every defender pushed up to the closest receiver or to cut down the quarterback run. Dawson was 11 yards behind the defense when he caught the ball.
The safeties were shaky in coverage and safety is a thin position for Western Michigan. Hopefully, the lessons learned here are learned the hard way once. Michigan State transfer Tate Hallock looked spectacular in run support and led the Bronco defense in total tackles. He was described by Coach Taylor post-game as a “heat-seeking missile” and it’s a good description.
The Broncos see their next game in action in a little more than a week on September 9th on the road against Syracuse.