Western Michigan and Michigan State last played in 2013 in East Lansing. It was a game that could largely summarize the Broncos' season that year: sloppy, frequently ugly, and the Broncos did not win. Two years has made a world of difference for WMU, though. The program is riding a wave of hype into what is arguably the most hotly anticipated game in program history against the Spartans. Hotly anticipated games are new territory for the Broncos, as the program is evolving from one expected to disappoint into one expected to win.
Much of the anticipation for Friday's game stems from the Broncos opponent - another program that underwent an evolution following years of disappointment - and it's difficult to argue with the Spartans' credentials. While both teams contributed to the sloppy mess that was the 2013 contest, one of those teams went on to win the Rose Bowl, and that team comes into Waldo Stadium as 18.5 point favorites. The other portion of the hype comes from the Broncos' quick turnaround and the celebrity of its rather unorthodox head coach, P.J. Fleck. If the Broncos and, by extension, "Row The Boat" are to become household names in the rust belt, this game is a great place to start.
Can Western Michigan control the line of scrimmage?
The Spartan offense likes to run the football in standard downs. 68 percent of the time, in fact. You can't blame them given the personnel on the offensive line. Led by All-American center Jack Allen and 2014 second team All Big Ten left tackle Jack Conklin, the Spartan line is one of the top units in the Big Ten. Conventional wisdom seems to be the Spartans will line up against a smaller WMU and run at will, but don't be surprised if the Broncos have an effective scheme up their sleeves. The defensive front seven was one of the most improved units on this Bronco football team in 2014, and it went from worst to first in the MAC in sack totals, recording 22 last season. If the athletic and blitz happy front seven of the Broncos can get into the MSU backfield on first down and get pressure on Cook in passing situations, the Spartans could get a bit more than they bargained for, even if the Bronco front four are giving almost 50 pounds per player to the offensive line.
Football frequently comes down to which team wins the line of scrimmage. And in most MAC vs Big Ten contests, the winner is the Big Ten. While Western Michigan fields an offensive line that returns four starters, including Willie Beavers and James Kristof, they will be starting a true freshman at center - John Keenoy - and the Spartans will likely test the young lineman's mettle early and often.
Tasked with the thankless job of protecting Zach Terrell from Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun will be Beavers at left tackle, and will need to neutralize a defense that sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times last season if the Broncos are to move the ball efficiently against the Spartans.
The Saturday morning stat line for Jarvion Franklin will tell you all you need to know about the Broncos' performance in the trenches. Michigan State allowed just 88.5 yards per game to opposing rushers last season, and have given little reason to expect much different from them in 2015. Franklin is a big body who's explosiveness speaks for itself - he won the MAC Freshman and Offensive Player of the Year awards, the first to ever accomplish that feat - and will definitely get his carries. But it will take tremendous line play and maybe a few broken tackles to see Franklin cross the century mark in this game.
WMU quarterback Zach Terrell is a big part of the recent Bronco turnaround. His 3443 yards, 67.9 percent completion rate and 164.4 QBR led the MAC last season, and also led the Broncos to an 8-5 record, appearing in just the sixth bowl game in school history. Terrell missed a few open receivers behind the MSU secondary in 2013, but don't expect more of the same this time around. Terrell will have a big day if the Spartans allow the likes of Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman to run free behind their defensive backs. Terrell is primarily a pocket passer, but has the ability to run if needed, and it may be needed a lot against the MSU pass rush.
Michigan State will likely run the ball more than it throws on Friday, but the Spartan quarterback will be called upon in big moments and could well be the key to avoiding an upset. The Senior quarterback is a dark horse pick as a 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist, and is even receiving some looks from the NFL. Cook's resume speaks for itself with a Rose Bowl championship and a 2014 campaign where he totaled 3214 yards and 24 touchdowns, leading the Spartans to a second place finish in the Big Ten's East division. Third down could be where Cook does his damage in week one, should WMU force the Spartans into those situations.
Contrasting Game Plans
Michigan State will look to make an impact on this game early with their rushing attack. Leading that rushing attack is newly named starter Madre London. London is a redshirt freshman and former four star recruit out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and could be filling up the stat sheet on Friday night for the MSU offense against a smaller WMU defensive front seven. While London should get the largest portion of the carries in this game, there will be plenty to go around for backup Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott should the offensive line of the Spartans dominate the line of scrimmage for four quarters the way they'd like to.
If you're the Broncos, how do you keep up on offense? A pre season All American wide receiver is a great place to Start. Corey Davis is just that receiver, and could very well be an NFL draft pick in 2016. Regardless, Davis is on pace to be one of the best to ever put on a Bronco uniform. The former MAC freshman of the year caught a touchdown pass against the Spartans in 2013, and an even better performance this time around against the MSU defense could go a long way towards validating some of the NFL questions. Besides being a fantastic athlete, Davis has going for him a weaker than normal MSU secondary facing him week one. The Spartans lose Trey Waynes to the NFL and are potentially down starting corner Darian Hicks due to illness. Number 84 will be open a time or two in this game, and if he and Terrell connect, it could be a long day for the Spartans.
The Spartans are nursing some injuries and replacing some players in the secondary. That could really come back to bite them as big plays are probably the one thing that can keep WMU in the game long enough to have a chance to win at the end. On the ground, the edge goes to the Spartans, and probably by a wide margin. Franklin is a phenomenal running back with a confident and talented line in front of him, but it will likely be no match for the MSU front seven. Defensively, the Broncos have their hands full and should be prepared to give up quite a few yards on the ground.
Zach Terrell to Corey Davis. Get used to hearing that if you are a Spartan fan. MSU's secondary may be better than it's given credit for, but Davis will be open in this game and will be good for a touchdown. Connor Cook is a proven commodity and though he probably won't be the top quarterback in the country when it's all said and done, he should be able to be effective in this game against a more than capable Bronco secondary.
Like they did in 2013, the Broncos will play better than expected, which presents a much higher ceiling in this game than for the team two years ago. This will be an exciting and hostile affair, but WMU just will not have enough answers for MSU's offense. WMU's defense will play well but will give up far too many touchdowns for even their own offense to overcome. I expect the Spartans to pull away with a big third quarter on Friday night, ending the Broncos chances for an upset bid.
Game Time, date: Friday, September 4th, 2015; kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 pm (EST)
Location: Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI
Stream Online: ESPN3
Radio: WZOX 96.5 (Kalamazoo); 101.3 FM (Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Holland); 94.1 FM (Jackson, Lansing, Battle Creek, Coldwater); 1130 AM (Detroit)