Broncos and Cougars face each other for the first time in nearly 50 years
The Broncos and Cougars have quite a few similarities. Both teams have had closes losses and big wins this season. Both squads also had to make quarterback changes midseason but for different reasons. And most importantly, both teams are looking for a season-ending win to help build momentum for 2019.
These two schools have faced each other five times previously, but the last matchup occurred way back in 1970. BYU holds a slight 3-2 advantage in the series, but Western Michigan won the most recent meeting, albeit almost 50 years ago now, beating the Cougars 35-17.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Western Michigan (7-5) vs. BYU (6-6)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 21 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Albertsons Stadium (Boise, Idaho)
Spread: BYU -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Two young quarterbacks
It’s not often you see two teams square off in a bowl game and both squads have a true freshman as their starting quarterbacks, but that’s what we have in the Potato Bowl.
Western Michigan had to turn to Kaleb Eleby after Jon Wassink went down with a foot injury. In four games (three starts), Eleby has posted solid numbers (917 passing yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 64.5 percent completion rate) but the Broncos are just 1-2 with him as a starter. Unlike Wassink, Eleby is not much of a threat to run, although he does have two touchdowns on the ground.
For BYU, head coach Kalani Sitake decided to make the switch from Tanner Mangum to Zach Wilson halfway through the season, In six starts, Wilson hasn't filled up the stat sheet but he's accounted for 10 total touchdowns (8 passing, 2 rushing) with just three interceptions while leading the Cougars to a 3-3 record.
Statistically speaking, BYU's defense has fared better than Western Michigan's, but both freshman signal-callers will have to find a way to make plays and protect the ball if they want to put their team in the best position to win.
2. Players with NFL potential
For several players, Saturday will be their final game while for others it's a chance to impress any NFL scouts that may be in attendance. For BYU, the ones to keep an eye on would be linebacker Sione Takitaki, defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, and offensive lineman Austin Hoyt. Takitaki leads the Cougars with 99 tackles, including eight for a loss while Tonga (6-4, 340) and Hoyt (6-8, 315) both possess intriguing size.
On the other sideline, Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy is the Bronco to watch. The junior was named first-team All-MAC after leading the conference with 1,172 rushing yards. Bellamy has overcome injuries during his time at WMU but has shown what he can do when he stays on the field, averaging a healthy 6.2 yards per carry. Saturday will be a great opportunity for him to showcase his talents, as BYU enters this game ranked 26th in the nation against the run (129.4 ypg).
3. Turnover margin
Always easy to chalk up a game to the team that takes better control of the football and/or creates more takeaways, but in a matchup like this, ball security will be key. Both teams enter this game with identical plus-one turnover differentials with the underlying numbers very similar. Western Michigan has turned the ball over more and generated more takeaways than BYU but it's a relatively minor difference (two for both) and the overall margin is the same. If one team is able to gain a significant advantage in this area that could be what decides the outcome on Saturday.
This game will be closer than the wise guys in the desert are saying. BYU has been a team that is very inconsistent, especially on offense. Zach Wilson and company will have their struggles moving the ball and putting points on the scoreboard, but the Cougars appear to have a distinct advantage on the other side. BYU's top-20 defense will make things difficult on Western Michigan quarterback Kaleb Eleby while containing 1,100-yard rusher LeVante Bellamy. It won't be pretty, but the Cougars will find a way to come away with the victory.
Prediction: BYU 26, Western Michigan 19
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is BYU Insider for ESPN 960 Sports and Publisher of Cougar Nation, part of the Rivals network. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.