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2023 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos at Iowa Hawkeyes

The Broncos face maybe the best defense in the nation. It’s bad news for a struggling offense.

Western Michigan v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

The Western Michigan Broncos head west to play Iowa in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Broncos have a win against FCS St. Francis and a really bad loss against Syracuse last week. Iowa cracked the latest edition of the AP Top 25 at number 25 after wins over Utah State and rival Iowa State.

Western Michigan is looking for a sharp rebound in quality after losing 48-7 to Syracuse. It was 7-0 after the Broncos’ first drive and 45-7 at the half. The Orange could’ve put 80 on the board if they wanted to. There was a lot to learn from the game film on both sides of the ball.

The Broncos have almost the opposite problem this week. Iowa has the nation’s top defense according to ESPN’s SP+, and an offense that has inspired many articles for the wrong reasons. Iowa’s offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has an auto-renewing contract, but new conditions are in place for the contract to auto-renew.

The Iowa Hawkeyes must win at least seven games, which seems like the easy one at this point, and the team must score 25 points per game. Through two games Iowa has 44 total points. Utah State seemed like an opportunity to build some cushion, especially after scoring 14 points in the first quarter. They reached 24 and needed a pick-six against Iowa State to win the game 20-13. Defensive points count for Brian’s contract.

The Broncos face another difficult matchup before starting conference play next week. Let’s take a look at how they match up with the Hawkeyes.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 16th at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: Big Ten Network (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Location: Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa
  • Gambling considerations: Iowa is favored by 28.5 points and the over/under is set at 42, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 2-1, winning the first two contests in 2000 and 2007.
  • Last meeting: Iowa beat Western Michigan 59-3 in 2013, the Broncos first year under PJ Fleck.

When Western Michigan has the ball:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Western Michigan at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jalen Buckley is the offense for the Broncos through two games. He leads the MAC with 281 yards on 38 carries and has shown he can be a home run hitter. He broke out for a 68-yard rush in Week 1, finishing with 194 rushing yards. Buckley scored on the second play from scrimmage against Syracuse for a 75-yard touchdown and filled Bronco fans with hope.

His downhill running style keeps the offense moving forward and can still hit the big plays. He’s been exciting to watch early in this season.

The biggest problem the Broncos have this week is the mismatch at the point of attack. The Iowa defense is big and mean and can suffocate the run. If space is open for the Broncos ground game, it won’t be open for long.

It’s inevitable that the Broncos will be in multiple passing situations and that’s another problem. All three quarterbacks saw game action last week and no one separated themself as the clear starter going forward. Jack Salopek is playing much better than last season, but there are still some killer habits. He holds the ball and seems to lose feel for the pocket. Transfer Hayden Wolff took care of the ball well but lacked efficiency and redshirt freshman Treyson Bourguet was maybe the most dynamic but it was garbage time.

Even if the Broncos figure out their best passer for Saturday, the Iowa secondary is something else. The run defense can be a little bit of “bend don’t break” but the secondary doesn’t bend. Cornerback Cooper DeJean is a projected first-round draft pick and their sophomore safety Xavier Nwankpa is a five-star recruit. Western Michigan has a good set of receivers but they are going to have trouble separating from this group.

And the last thing Western Michigan wants to do is force a pass. Ask Iowa State.

Even if the Broncos find themselves in a scoring opportunity, Iowa is 33rd in the nation in limiting points in those situations. I do have this optimism that throughout the season the Broncos will figure out their offense and be a decent MAC unit. That probably starts next week. They are in their first season under a new coach and in a new offensive system. Playing against the nation's top defense in Week 3 is not ideal.

When Iowa has the ball:

Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images

Let’s put the Iowa and Brian Ferentz memes to the side for a bit. Western Michigan has the worst defense that Iowa has played so far and probably will all season. Utah State is statistically close but better at this point. Also, that’s a Week 1 result and those can be outliers in the context of the whole season.

Iowa wants to run the ball despite importing an offense through the portal in the offseason. Their starting quarterback is former Michigan starter Cade McNamara and they also brought in a tight end, two wide receivers and two offensive linemen. The tight end is also from Michigan and one receiver is a former four-star from Ohio State.

The offensive line was a concern for Iowa in the offseason as the recent offensive lines haven’t been the traditional road graders they usually are. Those concerns have come to fruition through two weeks. Line yards are measured by taking each run and assigning the offensive line value based on the yards gained. They are 129th by that measure. Each down and distance can be given a point value derived from historical data and the difference between play one and play two can be measured. This is Predicted Points Added (PPA) and when Iowa has run the ball this season they have the 132nd rushing PPA.

Their relative strength is passing the ball and getting the ball in good field position from their defense. The Bronco secondary is broken this season with new faces learning on the job. If the Hawkeyes are serious about scoring points, this is how they will do it. I’m not saying they won’t have any success running the ball, but they could be explosive through the air if they tried.

Iowa’s tight ends Luke Lachey and Erick All are each six and a half feet tall and 250 pounds. Western Michigan could struggle to match up with that size.

The Western Michigan defense can create the negative play, but they struggle to convert it into a punt. They had no answers against the Syracuse offense a week ago between broken coverages and bad penalties that kept drives alive. If the Broncos get beat because of the athletic difference between a MAC school and a Big Ten school, that would be progress.

The game script that I expect to see in the early stages of this game is Iowa establishing the run and WMU being able to pack the box to make that difficult. The Broncos will blitz frequently and leave the back end in man to man, where it will get dicey for them. The running game could wear down the Broncos' front seven as the game goes on and lead to opportunities there. After last week, I’m gun-shy on optimism for this side of the ball, but this isn’t the Syracuse offense.


Western probably struggles to find a rhythm on offense. Big Ten rosters are going to find themselves in that position this year against Iowa. It’s possible the Iowa offense makes a mistake and gifts the ball to the Broncos on their side of the field or they get a garbage time opportunity. Iowa doesn’t blow the doors off on offense but scores enough to win comfortably.

Western Michigan 7
Iowa 27