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Tale of the Tape: Western Michigan 2018

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The Broncos pushed USC and Michigan State last year before injuries submarined the rest of the year. Those talented pieces are now healthy.

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NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Opening night in South Bend will surely be a dogfight. One week later, Michigan opens its home slate against directional foe Western Michigan, who finished 6-6 last year after injuries submarined some encouraging early performances.

Before going any further, I will reference S&P rankings for some analytic perspective in these posts. It’s a ranking system created by Bill Connelly, and the full methodology is explained here.

Simply put, it measures efficiency. While raw numbers may show a team only allows 100 passing yards a game, it’s an inefficient defense if they allowed that with only five throws.

S&P creates final rankings by evaluating team efficiency on play-by-play success, explosiveness, red-zone success (ability to finish drives), taking advantage of field position, and turnovers. The results are adjusted by opponent and garbage-time (you can’t just beat up on Delaware State), and the different metrics average out to a final ranking.

Like any analytical system, it’s not perfect. Last year’s No. 11 team Florida Atlantic got blown out by Navy, but still ranked one spot below Auburn, who blew out Georgia and Alabama. It just tells a better story than raw numbers.

The Broncos hit the road against USC and Michigan State to open 2017. They competed well against two 10-win Power-Five teams, losing to the eventual Pac-12 champ 49-31 and 28-14 to MSU.

The tape for today comes from these games for two reasons. First, Western didn’t play anyone else that approximated Michigan’s talent last year. Second, these games show the Broncos at their healthiest, as they lost 15 players to season-ending injuries during the conference season.

Western’s offense

Tim Lester leaned heavily on the run game last year, as quarterback Jon Wassink threw less than 200 attempts. For comparison, Brian Lewerke accumulated 417 throws in MSU’s ball-control offense.

This led to an above-average rush offense that ranked No. 54 per S&P, better than Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern and other Big Ten units.

Doak Walker candidates LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan carried the load in the first two games. Against the Trojans, they combined for 24 rushes for 179 yards against a top-50 rush defense. Bellamy, in particular, flashed big-play potential with a 48-yard first quarter jaunt.

While WMU highlights are hard to come by, watch the offensive line — led by Rimington candidate John Keenoy — win battles up front.

Overall, they ran for 263 yards and only trailed by four with less than four minutes left in their West Coast road trip.

One week later, they drove up I-69 North to visit East Lansing and ran for 116 yards against a top five rush defense per S&P.

At 0:31, Bellamy needs to win a one-on-one open field battle with Thorpe Award candidate David Dowell, and beats him to the corner for a first down. The right tackle occupies the end just long enough to let Bellamy show off his speed.

The junior back led the way on the ground for the second-straight week, amassing 67 yards on 12 totes.

Lester opted for three straight runs on the next drive, springing Bogan for eight yards on the first two tries. The lack of a passing threat led to an outright stuff at 3:00, as four Spartan defenders fight off blocks to take him down on a stretch play.

This patterns follows for the remainder of the game. Western found ways to manufacture yards on the ground, like at 7:14 when the line washes out the entire left side of the field for an easy first down. They just can’t find balance, as Jon Wassink finished 11-of-26 for just 79 yards.

The worst throws occur at 0:50 and 7:30. The first is a bad decision to throw into double-coverage, leading to a drive-ending pick. The latter is an inaccurate throw to a wide-open receiver. For an offense that scored zero points — WMU’s 14 points came courtesy of two return touchdowns by Darius Phillips — these wiped off two opportunities to score.

Despite this, Lester mentored Wassink to a 14-to-4 TD-INT ratio. He does some damage with his feet, and also, surprisingly, his hands.

Pardon the weird editing, and the bizarre App State appearance.

He ended up with two touchdown catches on the year.

Western’s defense

Western returns one of the worst rushing defenses in the country last year. Seeing that Michigan’s ground attack ranked No. 14 in 2017, this is a mismatch.

USC and MSU both surpassed 200 yards rushing, with the latter nearly crossing 300. The problems are all-encompassing. In the first play below, watch some bad tackling.

While that is second round pick Ronald Jones III, bad form turns a short conversion into a big play. Even without the bad tackling, the defensive line gets thrown way out of position. The interior ends up five yards away from the play, and the defensive ends flies upfield towards Sam Darnold, giving Jones a full head of steam into the secondary.

The ensuing play at 0:14 is a touchdown sprung by perimeter blocking. Three defensive backs — returning contributors A.J. Thomas, Calin Crawford and Justin Tranquill — can’t get off blocks to even get a hand on the ball-carrier.

Lastly, the secondary can’t get an angle on Brian Lewerke, letting him loose for an explosive touchdown jaunt.

The pass defense, on the other hand, has some pieces. Despite losing Sam Beal to the New York Giants in the supplemental draft, the Broncos return two starters at safety from the magical 2016 team in Tranquill and Davontae Ginwright. They also add Syracuse grad transfer Juwan Dowels at corner, who collected two picks in his time against ACC receivers.

Defensive coordinator Tim Daoust looks to mold these pieces just like he did with Beal and Phillips, who combined for three picks in the first two games against top 20 S&P passing offenses.

Skip to 3:06 for an acrobatic pick by Sam Beal.

The pass defense is bolstered by some good edge rushers. At 1:25, watch Eric Assoua rip down Darnold, an incredibly elusive man in the pocket.

Assoua and Antonio Balabani return, who racked up a combined six sacks in injury-shortened seasons. While not an acid test for the Michigan tackles, the pass-rushing duo provides some challenge.

Final thoughts

Michigan’s defense should be able to kill the Broncos, and then beat a dead horse.

While they will face a fine pair of backs in Bellamy and Bogan, the lack of a passing threat means the front-seven can pin their ears back and get into the backfield.

Michigan’s offense, meanwhile, can use a weak Western front to fine-tune their blocking schemes. The Wolverines may not need to throw at all. If they do, the tackles get a decent challenge against the pass-rush, while Patterson gets an opportunity to prove he can limit turnovers.

The early prediction is a 52-7 rout, but a post-Notre Dame hangover could possibly tighten that margin a bit.