In 2016, P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan rowed the boat all the way to the Cotton Bowl. After Fleck cashed a paycheck and fled to Minneapolis, Tim Lester picked up the pieces in the 6-6 followup year.
While the offense returns seven starters, including four on preseason award watch lists, the defense is in a youth movement.
The Broncos have never beaten the Wolverines, and have lost by double-digits each time since a 17-13 defeat in 1917. (Not one of Fielding Yost’s better outings.)
These are the players Michigan needs to know if they plan on winning their seventh straight in the series.
Running back — Jamauri Bogan/LeVante Bellamy
Bogan, a redshirt senior, and Bellamy, a redshirt junior, both made the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list. Both need to recover from season-ending injuries in 2017 to even approach award consideration.
Bogan is a 5-foot-8, 170-pound speedster with surprising power. He earned MAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2015 after crossing 1,000 yards, but nagging foot ailments limited promising years since then.
He opened 2017 with a 15-carry, 77-yard effort in Los Angeles against Pac-12 Champ USC. He amassed 589 yards on 5.25 yards a pop, eventually bowing out after nine games.
Bellamy opened eyes against both the Trojans and Michigan State. The converted wide receiver ran for 102 yards on just nine carries in Los Angeles, including a 48-yard romp to help Western take a first quarter lead. He also tacked on 67 yards on 12 carries against the Spartans — the No. 2 rush defense in 2017.
Injuries slowed his early roll, as he finished with 394 yards on just 49 totes — all in only six games.
Their inclusion on the watch list is mostly projection, but when healthy, the duo give defenses headaches.
Tight end — Giovanni Ricci
He may be on the John Mackey watch list. But does Giovanni Ricci have Giovanni Ribisi moves?
The answer is no. The next question is, “Why is he up for the Mackey?”
While he only snagged 12 receptions for 80 yards, Tim Lester will use his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame as a FLEX tight end (think Devin Funchess before Hoke dropped the pretense that he was a tight end).
The projection has to be that Ricci will replicate the success of current Tampa Bay Buccaneer rookie Donnie Ernsberger.
Center — John Keenoy
Keenoy, pictured here against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, helped pave the way for Western’s No. 21 rushing offense in 2017.
Undersized at 6-foot-2, 282 pounds, he fought his way to first-team All-MAC honors last year. He’s durable, starting 37 of his 38 games going into his senior year.
Defensive end — Eric Assoua
Sam Darnold is a slippery fellow. Eric Assoua didn’t seem to care.
Another of Western’s walking wounded from last year, the Bronco defensive end struggled through knee injuries. Despite participating in nine games, he was second on the team with 3 sacks.
This nearly matched his full season production in 2016, where he totaled 47 tackles, 6.5 TFL’s and 3.5 quarterback takedowns. Entering his final campaign, expect him to return or surpass those numbers.
Safety — Justin Tranquill
The brother of Notre Dame linebacker Drue, Tranquill is yet another productive member of the 2016 team that suffered a season-ending injury last year.
He tore his ACL against Michigan State — his second tear of his college career — but a May 2018 article for The Battle Creek Enquirer listed him as an opening day starter.
Tranquill, when healthy, is a steady last line of defense. He racked up 86 tackles, the No. 2 mark for Western in 2016.
He is one of the rare Broncos who garnered four stars as a recruit, as Scout awarded him the honor in 2015. Add in academic all-conference honors, and you have a talented and heady back end for Lester’s defense.
As always, when healthy.
The main takeaway is Western Michigan was more talented than the 6-6 record showed in 2017. Close losses to very good Power-Five teams in USC and Michigan State showed this, but injuries submarined any momentum from those performances.
While it may be Michigan’s easiest game in 2018, there are some landmines to side step.