Western Michigan football (3-0) is coming off another big win against rival Central Michigan and will welcome Northern Illinois (0-3) to Waldo Stadium this Saturday as the Broncos look to get one step closer to securing a MAC West title and a trip to Ford Field with a win.
While the Broncos now find themselves on a roll at the midway point in the shortened season, the same cannot be said for the struggling Huskies coming into Saturday’s matchup.
NIU is a young team, slated to start seven freshmen on defense against the Broncos while three freshmen are expected to start on the offensive side of the ball.
While the Huskies put together an improved performance last week against Ball State, they have largely struggled in their three games, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Last season, the Broncos were in a position to clinch the MAC West title in their final regular season game of the year before NIU pulled the upset, all but ending WMU’s hope of getting to Detroit.
WMU head coach Tim Lester said his team remembers the feeling of the way last season ended.
“We’ve been talking about it (last year’s NIU loss) since that day, really,” Lester said. “We didn’t finish the season, we didn’t do the job last year. Give them credit, they played well, we didn’t and they won the game. We’ve got a chance to make it right, we’ve got to come out and play better. There are a lot of places we can get better and I know our guys are focused.”
Lester also said despite NIU’s struggles this season, he isn’t planning on anything being easy against a program who has been a tough out in the MAC for many years.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Lester said. “We’re going to have to come out and play and play well to be in the game. Northern is never an easy out--ever. They haven’t been that way for 20 years.”
NIU offense vs. WMU defense
On offense, Northern Illinois has seen very little success so far this season. The Huskies average just 351 yards per game, which ranks 100th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Northern Illinois has been better through the air than on the ground, ranking 61st in college football in passing offense with quarterback Ross Bowers completing 60-of-100 passes on the season for 641 yards. But Bowers has just two touchdown passes on the season to show for it to go along with two interceptions.
“They’ve got Bowers back, he’s a really good thrower, throws it all over the yard. It’s going to be a challenge,” Lester said.
Receiver Tryice Richie has been the most dynamic weapon for the NIU offense on the year, leading the MAC with 27 receptions with a touchdown and 284 receiving yards.
Richie should present the biggest challenge for a WMU pass defense which ranks 43rd in the nation, although the Broncos have faced one true dynamic passing attack up to this point in Toledo.
The Huskies have found almost zero success running the football, with Harrison Waylee leading the team with 152 yards on the year on 3.8 yards per carry. Running back Eric Collins has found the endzone three times on the season on 3.5 yards per carry as the two have split carries on the year.
The Broncos come into this game 67th-best against the run while allowing 219 yards on the ground last week to Central Michigan. That will be an area WMU will have to clean up this week and it should be able to against the 110th ranked rushing offense in college football.
WMU offense vs. NIU defense
The WMU offense has been pumping full speed so far this season, averaging 516 yards per game so far, which is good for the 10th best in the country. The main reason behind the offensive explosion is the pass game, which is led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who has thrown for 310 yards per game this season with 11 touchdowns and an interception.
NIU has been a bit more sound on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 39th against the pass and 88th against the run.
Lester said establishing the run game against NIU’s defense will be one of the keys to whether the Broncos can have success on offense.
“I see the same defense I saw last year,” Lester said. “Aggressive, they’re going to stop the run, which is what we need to try to do, we’re always trying to find a way to run the ball. It changes everything.”
The front seven the Broncos will be facing has been led by linebacker Kyle Pugh, who has 25 tackles on the season.
A point of emphasis for any defense WMU goes against is finding a way to slow down receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, which no team has been able to figure out up to this point. The Huskies will be attempting to stop the redshirt senior as he has 457 yards receiving and six touchdowns so far on the year.
On paper, the Huskies will look to have a tough time trying to stop the different playmakers WMU presents, especially with NIU’s overall inexperience.
Joseph- WMU 48, NIU 35
Seth- WMU 42, NIU 24