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Preview: Western Michigan 2018

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After the disappointing opener against Notre Dame, the Broncos look to be the first of two palate cleansers for the Wolverines.

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Western Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

If you follow Michigan social media, several Wolverine fans find themselves in an existential crisis after Saturday’s 24-17 defeat to Notre Dame.

Also, some former players. (warning: language)

Add in this bit of defeatism.

I get it. As Rich Eisen said to the team in Sept. 2016, “(the football program) is this institution’s heart and soul.” When your heart and soul looks like its wandering in the Indiana woods, failing to convert on myriads of opportunities to score and dropping a nationally-relevant game to its rivals, enthusiasm suffers.

When the guts and glue of the Maize and Blue hit the field Saturday afternoon, two inspiring people will be at their side. Both endured physical harm — one the worst type of emotional pain — and both provide shining examples of grace in our society.

Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault survivor and women’s advocate, will stand alongside Grant Newsome, who nearly lost his leg after a gruesome injury against Wisconsin two years ago. She already makes a difference by fighting for the sexually and domestically abused, while Newsome looks to lead the future with a master’s degree in public policy in hand.

Michigan, after falling short in the Brady Hoke era, fields a program that idolizes the best society can offer. They honor the Brenda Tracy’s and Grant Newsome’s of the world, not liars, enablers or those who turn a blind eye.

Be proud of your team, and always hold them to most important standards.


Oh, yeah...football.

MOTO (Master of the Obvious)

Western Michigan (0-1) at No. 21 Michigan (0-1), noon EST

TV: FS1

Radio: Michigan IMG Sports Network (TuneIn)

Line: Michigan by 28 (Westgate)

Series history: Michigan is 6-0 against the Broncos, including a 34-10 victory to open the Brady Hoke era in 2011. The game was shortened due to thunderstorms.

MICHIGAN METEOROLOGY

Looking gorgeous, so far. Accuweather predicts a sunny, 72-degree day with a 16 percent chance of rain. Slight winds around 10 miles per hour.

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Michigan offense vs. WMU defense

THE PASSING GAME

Western fell to Syracuse 55-42 last Friday, as the Orange built a 34-7 lead behind dual-threat quarterback Eric Dungey’s big plays.

Western lost cornerback Sam Beal to the NFL supplemental draft this offseason, yet still held Dungey under 40 percent passing. However, the defense also allowed 184 yards passing from him in about three quarters of action — a result of Syracuse rotating quarterbacks.

The Broncos possess two returning safety starters from their 2016 Cotton Bowl run: Justin Tranquill — brother of Notre Dame linebacker Drue — and Davontae Ginwright. The leading tackler in the game was cornerback A.J. Thomas with 13. Corners and safeties leading the team in tackles rarely inspires confidence — i.e. downfield tackling on big plays.

The WMU secondary ceded passing plays of 27, 30, 38 and 50 yards. With decent protection, Shea Patterson connected with Nico Collins for a 52-yard gain against the Irish. With time to throw, Patterson’s arm leads an explosive unit.

Skip to 2:13 for deep bomb.

Grant Perry and Oliver Martin proved solid possession receivers, with Martin in particular working back to Patterson for a key first down on the final touchdown drive.

Bronco defensive coordinator Tim Daoust failed to create too much pressure against Syracuse, only getting four quarterback hurries. If Michigan has trouble protecting Patterson, it spells trouble for the rest of the season. Regardless, Pep Hamilton can utilize the quick passing and screen game that moved the chains at times in South Bend.

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

Syracuse gutted the Broncos for 334 yards rushing, with 200 of them coming courtesy of Dungey. While Patterson likely won’t try to carry the ball too much, he should have room to pick up chunks of yards with his legs.

As discussed in Film Focus, three things stunted the Michigan run game against Notre Dame. One, they ran into loaded fronts. Two, some linemen, particularly Jon Runyan Jr. on the third down stop on the first drive, failed to clamp his hands on a stunting linemen. Third, sacks and the Will Hart botched field goal brought the average under two yards a carry.

This line functions like one with five capable run-blocking guards from left to right. Against Western, that should be enough.

Karan Higdon accumulated a solid 72 yards despite these issues, picking up chunks of yards with power and improved vision. This weekend against WMU is the type of game necessary to boost his numbers en route to Michigan’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011.

The recent results against the Orange — as well as last year’s No. 122 ranked finish in S&P rush defense — likely spells doom for the Broncos.

Advantage: Michigan

Michigan defense vs. WMU offense

THE PASSING GAME

Jon Wassink amassed 379 yards against Syracuse, despite completing barely over half his throws. With just 19 completions, that means 20 yards per reception.

His main targets were 5-foot-9 D’Wyane Eskridge and 6-footer Jayden Reed. The latter crossed the century mark on seven catches, scoring a touchdown in garbage time. The former ignited a comeback — from down 34-7 to 34-28 — with an 84-yard touchdown where he simply beats the secondary with speed.

Eskridge finished with 242 yards and two scores on eight receptions. He earned Offensive Player of the Week honors for the MAC West.

Michigan transfer Drake Harris garnered a lone catch for 12 yards.

Last year, head coach Tim Lester leaned on his running game due to Wassink’s shortcomings. This year, his signal-caller has the weapons and increased capability to keep defenses honest.

With Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary chasing him, as well as coverage from Lavert Hill and David Long, he may not have time to feel comfortable. The defensive end duo combined for three quarterback hurries, with Winovich earning a sack. After some early struggles Saturday, the secondary held Brandon Wimbush to 22 yards passing in the second half.

Advantage: Michigan

THE RUN GAME

The Broncos boast two Doak Walker Award watch list members in junior LeVante Bellamy and senior Jamauri Bogan. Bellamy averaged just under 10 yards a pop and scored twice against Syracuse, while Bogan chipped in 68 yards on just six totes.

Both hit big plays, but none bigger than Bellamy’s 64-yard scoring jaunt.

Bellamy is a 5-foot-9 speedster, while Bogan is Mike Hart-lite at 5-foot-7: stout and churns for yardage.

Behind a powerful line led by Rimington candidate John Keenoy, Lester knows he has the horses to grind out yards on the turf. His team tenderized Southern California in the opener last year to the tune of 263 yards. Even with an anemic passing game, they cleared the century mark against Michigan State in 2017, as well.

The Broncos operate their spread offense from the shotgun, but unlike Notre Dame last week, Wassink lacks Wimbush’s legs.

Notre Dame’s running backs last week occasionally found room, garnering 80 yards on 24 carries (3.33 YPC). Once Wimbush stopped dealing as a passer, and the Michigan defense stiffened, the holes disappeared.

Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are known commodities — even if Hudson only tallied two tackles last week. The matchup to watch here is Devin Gil or Josh Ross against Bellamy. The WILL linebackers struggled in space against the Irish, and Bellamy has the wheels to make them pay.

Also, the defensive tackles need to prove themselves against a standout lineman in Keenoy. This seems like a game where Don Brown adjusts after an initial shaky series. After that, the rush defense should return to their top 10 form.

Advantage: Slightly Michigan

ISN’T THAT SPECIAL

Quinn Nordin hit his only field goal attempt, as Will Hart botched the hold on his other chance. Bronco sophomore kicker Josh Grant missed his only try last week.

The Broncos trot out freshman punter Nick Mihalic, who averaged 36 yards a punt last weekend. He did boot a 51-yarder, for what it’s worth. After offseason speculation, Will Hart replaced Brad Robbins for the opener due to Robbins’ back surgery; he is expected to miss a good chunk of time. Hart averaged nearly 44 yards.

Bellamy returns kicks, but failed to return one for more than 18 yards against Syracuse. Ambry Thomas proved to be a game-changer at the position.

Both he and Donovan Peoples-Jones are field-position weapons — the latter just needs to know when to let punts sail into the end zone.

PREDICTION

This is an palate-cleansing opportunity, as the Wolverines hold advantages at most positions.

As a Michigan fan, you want to see the offensive line pulverize, and the defensive tackles and WILL linebackers to make the proverbial “Week 1 to Week 2” improvement.

Expect a confidence-building blowout.

Michigan 51, Western Michigan 10