Each week, The Daily will take an early look at Northwestern’s opponent, breaking down the biggest facets of the game. Up first is the Wildcats’ Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan.
The last (and only) time Western Michigan traveled to Northwestern — Sept. 14, 2013 — coach P.J. Fleck had just inherited a basement-of-the-MAC team that was no match for the Wildcats, losing 38-17, and eventually went 1-11 on the season.
The Broncos’ trip to Evanston this Saturday has a much different feel.
Since that rough 2013 campaign, Fleck has led Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and returns all of the weapons in an offense that was one of the most explosive in the country last season. Senior receiver Corey Davis is projected to be the first WR off the board in next spring’s NFL draft and the Broncos enter the season as the favorite to win their first-ever MAC title.
The Cats will have their hands full with upset-minded Western Michigan in this weekend’s season opener. Below is a more detailed scouting report on the Broncos’ most pressing strength, weakness and question mark.
Biggest Strength: Entire offense
The combination of senior quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis forms the backbone of the Broncos’ offense and will provide a big test for NU’s “Sky Team” secondary.
Terrell completed 67 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions last season, ranking 8th in FBS in yards per attempt (Clayton Thorson, by comparison, was 118th).
And although he loses his top volume receiver in Daniel Braverman, he’ll still have Davis, and that could be all he and the Broncos need.
The 6’3”, 215-pound receiver has reportedly bulked up in the offseason after a 1,436-yard season in 2015, averaging more than 10 yards each time he was targeted and more than 130 yards per game over the latter half of the season.
While NU cornerbacks Matthew Harris and thrust-into-action Montre Hartage are challenged by Terrell and Davis, the Broncos could be able to take advantage of the relatively sparse box with a multi-headed rushing attack.
Western Michigan was actually nearly as good of a running team (30th in the nation) as a passing team (27th) last season and did so with a three-speared attack composed of a sophomore and two freshman, all of whom return. They can attack NU’s rush defense in every way with 6’1, 228-pound wrecking ball Jarvion Franklin charging up the middle and undersized scatbacks Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 touchdowns last year) and LeVante Bellamy racing for the edges.
Biggest weakness: Rush defense
Western Michigan’s most gaping hole just happens to align perfectly with NU’s most definite strength, which will provide a much-needed target for the Cats to exploit Saturday.
The Broncos’ rush defense allowed 5.3 yards per carry in 2015, ranking 117th among 128 FBS teams. Their linebacking corps fluctuated wildly week to week last season, as no combination seemed able to consistently stop the run. Additionally, five of the top eight tacklers (excluding the secondary) graduated in the offseason.
Indeed, in their losses last year, it was opponent’s rush games that most frequently burned them.
Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 124 yards on 16 carries in a 38-12 rout; Georgia Southern racked up a whopping 413 team rush yards in their 43-17 win; Northern Illinois’ Jordan Huff ripped off 159 yards on just eight carries against the Broncos; even Eastern Michigan, which ranked 85th in rushing offense for the season, recorded 226 yards on the ground against the Broncos.
Justin Jackson, Warren Long and even scrambling-minded Clayton Thorson should be excited for this matchup.
Biggest question: Can Broncos handle Big Ten-level play?
Western Michigan is no stranger to Big Ten teams — it faced two great ones last year (Michigan State and Ohio State) and has played 14 games against the Big Ten over the past seven years, including bowl games — but the team is a stranger to success in those matchups: Western Michigan lost all 14 of those games.
Since beating Illinois 23-17 in late 2008, the Broncos have been occasionally competitive, but never the victors, against their “big brother” Midwest conference. If this year’s loaded team is to prove it’s a different Western Michigan than in the past, it will need to break that slump by beating Northwestern.
The national ESPNU cameras will be there, the media has jumped on board their bandwagon and even the betting lines (NU minus-5) are remarkably close — but can the Broncos live up to the hype?