Monday's slate of bowl games kicks off just after noon ET with an intriguing battle of Group of 5 teams when the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Western Michigan Broncos. While both teams have strong aerial attacks, they present intriguing matchups in the other phases of the game.
Western Kentucky and Western Michigan used to play frequently — 14 times from 1923 to '47 — but they haven't met in more than seven decades. Of course, plenty has changed since then, especially in the last three years.
Tyson Helton is in the midst of his first season as Western Kentucky's head coach, and a win could match the Hilltoppers' total victories in the last two seasons combined. Jeff Brohm's departure in 2016 initially left WKU looking like it might revert to its struggling form when it first entered the FBS in 2007. But Helton has brought the team back to relevance with a surprisingly dominant defense, considering his background on the other side of the ball.
Western Michigan, meanwhile, has continued to chug along under Tim Lester after the departure of P.J. Fleck to Minnesota three seasons ago. Lester has yet to have a losing record in Kalamazoo, but he hasn't done much more than that. With six wins in his debut and seven last season, the Broncos have a chance to improve upon that with a victory in Dallas.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Western Kentucky (8-4) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gerald J. Ford Stadium (Dallas)
Spread: Western Kentucky -3.5
When Western Kentucky Has the Ball
Western Kentucky's turnaround would not have been possible without the arrival and development of quarterback Ty Storey, a graduate transfer from Arkansas. After posting a 57.2 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, Storey has improved to a 70.1 percent completion rate with 12 touchdowns and five picks this year. As a whole, Hilltoppers quarterbacks posted a 58.9 percent completion rate last year, so he's really opened up the offense.
Storey's arrival has helped unlock the potential of several receivers, including Lucky Jackson (985 yards, 3 TDs) and Jahcour Pearson (772, 6). Equally important has been the emergence of Gaej Walker, who converted from defensive back to running back in the spring and became one of the most dependable backs in the nation. While he only averages 4.9 yards per carry, Walker (1,115 yards) is WKU's first 1,000-yard rusher in three seasons.
With a balanced offensive attack, Western Kentucky has scored at least 20 points in all but one game and is averaging 30.2 points per game in the second half of the season. The Hilltoppers' main struggle has been with turnovers, where their 19 giveaways are tied for 81st in the nation. That could be a place for the Broncos to take advantage since they are tied for 35th nationally with 20 takeaways. Western Michigan is not particularly strong at stopping the pass (67th nationally) or run (94th), so the Broncos will likely need a few big plays on defense.
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
After throwing for 1,994 yards in nine games as a junior, expectations were that Jon Wassink would take another step forward to lead a strong Western Michigan offense this season. He's been solid once again, but slight regression has held back the Broncos from winning more games. Wassink's completion rate fell from 61.6 to 59.8 percent, while his yards per pass are down from 8.1 to 7.8.
The good news is that Western Michigan can rely even more on running back LeVante Bellamy, the MAC Offensive Player of the Year who paces the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns and is tied for 11th with 1,412 yards. Only eight running backs have touched the ball more than him, and he's averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry.
The challenge will be that WKU is one of the best defenses, statistically speaking, the Broncos have faced all season. The only other time they have matched up with a top-30 defense, Michigan State held WMU to 17 points. If the Hilltoppers can keep Bellamy around three yards per carry, it's not clear if Wassink will be able to carry the offense alone. Fortunately, Wassink has not been turnover-prone, but he also has eclipsed 200 passing yards just once in the last six games after a hot start.
Good offense, meet good defense. It's hard to bet against the good defense, and the advanced numbers back that claim up. WKU nearly finished with a positive mark in ESPN's SP+ ratings at 63rd (-0.5), while Western Michigan came in at 88th (-4.5). The Broncos' best chance will come from aggressive play and forcing turnovers, but this one should be close either way.