Michigan’s home opener this year comes without much of the normal pomp and circumstance. The curtain has been lifted on this team, and the opening act left much to be desired. Last week’s loss to Notre Dame eliminated some of the revelatory intrigue that often accompanies this week.
In comes Western Michigan — traveling just over 100 miles to the east — to take on the Wolverines on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Both teams are 0-1.
The Broncos enter the game off a 55-42 loss to Syracuse, in hopes of spurring an unprecedented upset behind a surprisingly upstart offense. The Daily spoke to Patrick Nothaft, a reporter for MLive and Kalamazoo Gazette reporter, to learn about Western Michigan’s strength and weaknesses, and how the two teams might match up on Saturday.
The Michigan Daily: From a national perspective, people knew Western for PJ Fleck — he sort of put Western on the map. How would you describe the state of the program at this point?
Patrick Nothaft: I would say that, honestly, the excitement from that undefeated regular season is kind of wearing off, just from looking around town, you don’t see as much of the support around the street — all the Western flags in the business windows and all that kinda thing that you saw during the undefeated season.
I will say the expectations were pretty high last year. I know a lot of people — especially after hanging tough with USC week one — were expecting better than 6-6. It’s hard to just look at the record and say the season was a total failure, because there were just so many injuries. They had 21 guys that were season-enders, including the quarterback. And as it turned out, the backup was not ready for Division I college football. He left the program and isn’t playing football anymore. So it was a pretty rough go offensively.
When other teams are putting 10 guys in the box daring you to throw, and you still can’t throw, it’s a pretty disappointing product as a fan to watch, just because you get in a lot of third-and-long situations and you can’t pass. Last year obviously didn’t go that well.
It seems like reading some of the reactions from the fans this year, there’s just not that much excitement. They think a middle-of-the-pack MAC finish is on the table this year. But I think that, as far as what the coaching staff is doing, they have the right people in place for future success. They only have 10 seniors on this team. I think they’re headed in the right direction. I think Tim Munster is a really good offensive coach, but it’s just going to take a little bit of time.
TMD: What did you make of the game against Syracuse?
Nothaft: I thought the offense was definitely a bright spot, at least in the second half. They hit some big plays. I think I said earlier, the passing game just couldn’t get on track last year at all. For them to come out, and drove for almost 380 yards and three touchdowns, including that 84-yarder from John Wassink to (D’Wayne) Eskridge. I thought that was really good to see. They still got their yards rushing the ball, even though they kind of abandoned the run game after they got that huge first-half hole. I think that the offense was really encouraging. But the defense, on the other hand, definitely wasn’t. To let a quarterback run for 200 yards on 15 carries is not what you want to see. I think people are going to find out as the season goes on, the Syracuse quarterback is probably one of the best dual threat guys in the country. He led Syracuse to a win over Clemson last year. They’re not really going to see that caliber of quarterback going forward. I think the defense will show improvement, but the offense is what really surprised me, with how well it’s clicking.
TMD: Is that what you expected coming into the year — an offense that was going to be the strength of the year, with a defense that lags behind?
Nothaft: I think that was a surprise. People had questions about quarterback John Wassink coming off his season-ending surgery to repair his broken collarbone. People didn’t really know what to expect. He started out terrible against USC and Michigan State, which isn’t too unexpected for a guy making his first two career starts on the road like that. He settled down in MAC play. I think people just kind of wondered if his 14:2 interception ratio that he posted in MAC play, if that was going to carry over. And it turns out that he’s picking up right where he left off, at least he did against Syracuse anyway. Things are going to go a little bit differently against Michigan because their defense is so good. I think him being able to hit those big plays and loss passes was definitely a surprise because they couldn’t do it all last year. That was the one weakness of the offense, was that they could not stretch the field.
TMD: For Michigan fans who might be unfamiliar with Western, who are a few players they should be looking out for?
Nothaft: I would say the running back Levante Bellamy. During the summer in practice, he ran a 4.32 40-(yard dash). So he is definitely fast. There’s probably very few Michigan players who will catch him from behind if he gets loose in the open field.
Their wide receiver Eskridge. He had that 84-yard touchdown catch against Syracuse. He’s another guy, he posted a 4.33 40-(yard dash) over the summer. If he gets behind Lavert Hill or David Long, it’s going to be really tough for those guys to catch him. If I were the Michigan cornerbacks, I wouldn’t gamble. I’d just try to keep him in front of me. If you can put a hit on him right as he catches it, that’ll work out in their favor a little bit more.
I think those are the two big guys on offense. Those are pretty much Western’s two main playmakers.
TMD: Are there any other matchups that you think might give Michigan trouble — specifically on the other side of the ball?
Nothaft: Everyone knows how bad Michigan’s tackles have looked. Notre Dame has a real good front. Western has some decent defensive ends. I don’t want to call out anyone by name, but the ends of the offensive line kind of look lost. Whether or not they can beat Western’s defensive ends one-on-one is a fair question, I think. They’re not really the biggest defensive ends, I think they’re both around 240 pounds. That could be somewhere where Western Michigan has an edge, but I’d expect if Michigan’s having trouble with that, they’ll just rely on the ground game, because Western’s interior defensive linemen aren’t very big and Michigan’s guys are huge. I think they could push them off the ball, and just run it and escape with a pretty easy win.
TMD: If Western is to hang around in this one, what are a few keys to that?
Nothaft: I think turnovers will be huge. If they can get to Shea Patterson and force some fumbles, that’s a really good way to put Michigan in a hole. If they can hit some big plays over the top, like they did against Syracuse — I’m sure that Michigan’s watched the film on Western, so they know they have some speed guys. But if Western can find a way to get some of their receivers behind defensive backs — no matter where they are on the field — that could be a touchdown.
So I think those are the two big things: connecting on some keys plays offensively and then forcing some turnovers and getting pressure on Patterson.
Nothaft: I said at the beginning of the season it’d probably about 38-14, Michigan. I think it’ll probably be a little higher scoring, just based on how many points Western gave up against Syracuse. So I guess right now I’d probably say 42-17, Michigan.