Western Michigan began the season with the goal to prove that its success last year — a 13-0 record before an appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl — was no fluke. Last Saturday, the Broncos were tied with USC at the end of the first, second and third quarters. Unfortunately for WMU, the Trojans erupted for 28 points in the fourth, and a monumental upset slipped away from the Broncos’ grasp.
Meanwhile, Michigan State started sloppily on offense at home versus another Mid-American Conference opponent. However, the Spartans’ defense dominated Bowling Green. The Falcons’ offense managed only to score a field goal.
Michigan State leads the overall series versus Western Michigan, 12-2. The Spartans have won the 10 most recent games in the series, including a 37-24 victory at Kalamazoo in 2015. The Broncos’ last win over the Spartans occurred in 1919.
Western Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Spartans be able to hold on to the ball?
Against Bowling Green, Michigan State fumbled the ball four times and lost three of those. Two of those turnovers led to Bowling Green scores. A 30-yard return of a fumble kick-started a 50-yard drive leading to a field goal. In the second half, the Falcons had a 46-yard scoop-and-score. In LJ Scott’s first game following surgeries on his shoulders late last year and in January, he fumbled twice and carried 15 times for only 39 yards. Fortunately for MSU, the fumbles did not affect the outcome of the game. However, such gaffes versus stiffer competition could mark the difference between victory and a bitter defeat.
2. Can WMU QB Jon Wassink contribute more while avoiding costly mistakes?
Jon Wassink (above, right) played in his first collegiate game in Los Angeles. He completed exactly half of his 22 passes, for only 67 yards and no touchdowns. He had more success running with the ball: seven carries for 32 yards and a touchdown. However, his sole interception was returned for a touchdown with less than four minutes left in the game when WMU was down only by eleven points. That snuffed out any hopes of a comeback by the Broncos. Western Michigan does not need Wassink to carry the offense. It needs him to protect the ball while feeding it to his running backs. An occasional play-action completion is a realistic goal for Wassink to dissuade the Spartans from placing eight or nine defenders between the offensive tackles and within a few yards of the line of scrimmage.
3. The Spartans' underperforming running backs vs. rebuilding Broncos rush defense
Leaving aside the issues of fumbles, Michigan State’s running game needs other improvements. The Spartans’ rushing attack managed 215 yards on 46 carries vs. Bowling Green. That average of 4.7 yards per attempt seems adequate. However, quarterback Brian Lewerke, in his first game following a broken leg last October, had the most rushing yards and had nearly a third of all of the gains on the ground against a Falcons defense that allowed 464.8 rushing yards on average per game in 2016 and was missing six starters from last year’s squad. In 2016, Western Michigan gave up an average of only 153.6 rushing yards per game along with a total of 17 rushing touchdowns in 14 games. However, the Broncos have a new defensive coordinator, and they lost two starters on the defensive line and one starting linebacker from ’16. Against USC, Western Michigan allowed 232 yards and six touchdowns on the ground on 34 attempts. Will players who are new to their roles be able to return WMU to last season’s stoutness against the run after a lackluster showing in week one?
The Broncos have shown that there are not intimidated by Power 5 venues. They won at two Big Ten stadiums, Northwestern and Illinois, last season. They were tied with USC halfway through the fourth quarter at the Los Angeles Coliseum last Saturday. Those associated with Western Michigan gleefully point out that the Broncos won more games against Big Ten opponents than the Spartans did a year ago. WMU will play with confidence and give the Spartans a serious challenge.
The Spartans still have a long way to go to prove that last year was the outlier during the otherwise quite successful tenure of Mark Dantonio. A loss to an in-state MAC program would cast much doubt on the proposition that Michigan State has rebounded from a nightmarish 2016 season. If the Spartans plan on returning to the postseason this year, this game is one that they need to win for eligibility. The Spartans will escape with a hard-fought victory that will be settled in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.