Western Michigan football struggled in all aspects of the game in a 47-14 season-opening loss to Michigan. The Broncos are looking to turn things around against Illinois State and put together a dominant performance to build some positive momentum.
WMU head coach Tim Lester said the team “learned a ton” in the loss to Michigan, and expressed confidence that his team would use it as an opportunity to improve.
“The biggest improvement is between week one and week two,” Lester said. “You figure out who can do it when the lights are on and who can’t. You get the people in there who can, or at least try someone else.”
It was a difficult, uncomfortable game for Bronco quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who completed 20 of 37 passes for just 191 yards and one touchdown. Lester said the speed of the game was a factor in his struggle, that the game felt fast as Eleby faced a Power 5 opponent for the first time in his career.
“He took some shots and kept getting up, I was proud of him,” Lester said. “He took some shots he didn’t need to take, and that’s a great learning experience for him of sticking on (his primary target), not getting to two fast enough. He hung in there and showed a lot of grit and toughness.”
These are the matchups to watch for that will play a big part in determining Saturday’s outcome:
WMU offense vs Illinois State defense
Western Michigan dealt with a few injuries during the game against the Wolverines, and while Lester said “nobody is ruled out yet” in his press conference Wednesday, the Broncos are likely to be careful with wide receiver Skyy Moore. Moore, an All-MAC honoree each of the past two years, had two catches for 22 yards and figures to be the best receiving option for WMU when healthy, but Corey Crooms, Jaylen Hall, and transfer Bryce Nunnelly all had at least 40 yards receiving against Michigan and should be able to handle the load if Moore is limited.
The Redbirds counter WMU’s passing attack with a pair of talented safeties in Clayton Isbell and Braden Price. Isbell was an FCS Freshman All-American honorable mention in 2019 and was named to the MVC All-Newcomer team. He had six tackles and an interception in the season-opening win over Butler for ISU, while Price made seven tackles including a sack and grabbed a pair of interceptions.
The Broncos had no turnovers in the loss to Michigan, but Illinois State’s defense that made three takeaways in week one will certainly put Eleby and the WMU offense to the test in that regard.
WMU managed 138 rushing yards against Michigan but was held under four yards per carry by the Wolverines. The Broncos’ offensive line will look to have more success against a defensive line for Illinois State that features less size and fewer players likely to have NFL futures to help create push, especially for inside running plays. Sean Tyler was able to generate 55 yards on his 10 carries with his speed, but La’Darius Jeffeson, who relies more on his strength and breaking tackles, managed just 38 yards on 10 carries.
“I thought we ran the ball pretty well,” Lester said. “I thought the o-line was fairly physical, we’ve got to do better in pass protection, but we’ve never been able to run as efficiently as we did this weekend there (against Michigan) before.”
WMU’s official depth chart for the week did not list Brett Borske, who is still working his way back to the field after suffering a knee injury in fall camp. Expect to see more three- and four-wide receiver sets, and Anthony Torres as the main tight end when the Broncos have one on the field.
WMU defense vs Illinois State offense
After the Broncos surrendered 335 yards on the ground to Michigan, it has to turn around and play a team that ran for 294 yards last week in Illinois State. Much of that success stems from strong offensive line play for the Redbirds.
“I think their offensive line is one of the better ones I’ve seen,” Lester said. “I think they’re going to be as good if not better than a lot of the o-lines in our league. They’re great up front, they’ve got speed, they’ve got size, they’ve got length.”
Another key part of the Redbird offense is sophomore quarterback Bryce Jefferson. Jefferson was just 8-17 passing against Butler in ISU’s season-opener, but threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns while adding 37 yards and two more scores in seven rushing attempts. Keeping him contained, and especially keeping him out of the end zone, will need to be a major focus for the Bronco defense.
One year removed from forcing just three turnovers in six games, and none in the final four contests, the Broncos once again failed to force a turnover against Michigan. Illinois State had one turnover last week, losing a fumble to Butler. Finding a way to force takeaways would make a big difference for WMU to be able to take control against ISU.
Some playmakers for Illinois State are running backs Cole Mueller and Kevin Brown, and wide receiver Austin Nagel. Mueller and Brown both averaged over 13 yards per carry in week one, with Mueller gaining 111 yards on eight attempts with two touchdowns and Brown racking up 81 yards on just six carries. Nagel made just two catches against Butler, but totaled 69 yards on the pair including a 44-yard touchdown catch.
WMU 45, Illinois State 20
Kickoff for the game is at 5 p.m. and it will air on ESPN3.