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October 5, 2012

Five keys to UMass

As we approach Saturday's Homecoming matchup with MAC newcomer UMass, BroncoBlitz.com takes a look at five factors that will decide which way the game goes.

1. Who is the real UMass?

For the first few weeks of the season, it looked as though UMass might be the worst team in FBS football. The Minutemen opened the season with three blowout losses to mostly mid-level BCS competition, with the offense in particular looking anemic.

The MAC opener against Miami gave some hope, as UMass hit the road and was able to stay competitive throughout the game, but it was assumed that with Ohio coming to town things would head back downhill.

Instead the Minutemen offense came alive and they gave the Bobcats all they could handle in a 37-34 loss that almost derailed Ohio's perfect season. Mike Wegzyn, who came in without a touchdown pass on the year, threw four along with 373 yards, and the ground game added a respectable 138 yards rushing.

Sure, the defense still looked porous, but if that's the real Minutemen offense, they'll scare a lot more teams this year. I'm still not convinced.

2. Can Tyler Van Tubbergen get his confidence back?

This game probably comes at a good time for the Bronco signal caller. Van Tubbergen is starting indefinitely in place of the injured Alex Carder, and got off to an inauspicious start last week as the offense sputtered early (failing to pick up a first down in the opening quarter) and never quite got it going.

There's certainly reason to believe Van Tubbergen is better than he showed last weekend. He's got to take advantage of the opportunity afforded him to play a weak Minutemen defense if he's going to build confidence going forward, though.

He'll still likely be without Eric Monette as he recovers from an ankle injury, but Jaime Wilson and Josh Schaffer have played better of late and should be enough to give Van Tubbergen the options he needs.

3. What gameplan will UMass employ?

The past two weeks have seen vastly different plans for the Minutemen offense. Last week against Ohio, they took to the air 51 times with solid success, adding a decent ground game to eclipse 500 yards of total offense. The week before at Miami, they managed only 16 points (mostly due to turnovers), but did great work on the ground with 258 yards and a pair of scores.

After film study, it'll be interesting to see what they decide is the best course of action against the Broncos. WMU's strength on defense is probably the secondary talent-wise, but they're now missing Jon Henry and Rontavious Atkins and will have two true freshmen (Michael Butler and Demetrius Ates) seeing significant time on Saturday.

Conversely, WMU is running a defense designed primarily to stop the run, but Toledo torched them for 278 yards on the ground last week. That was a big test for the Bronco defense and will undoubtedly be a focal point for a while with Northern Illinois looming not too far from now.

As for UMass, this is an advantage heading into the game as they've shown balance the past couple of weeks and Western Michigan can't key on only one aspect of the offense.

4. Will WMU play ball control?

It's not any secret around the MAC that Western Michigan plays an air-it-out type of offense. But they've shown a willingness in the past to stick to the ground game and control the ball if that's what the defense is allowing.

Last year, Bowling Green came to Waldo Stadium and left soundly beaten after a 351 yard explosion by the Bronco running attack. That didn't pan out for the rest of the year, but this week's game could be similar particularly considering that WMU has put together decent efforts on the ground of late.

It may be in the Broncos' best interests to feed Dareyon Chance and company early and often considering UMass' improvement the past couple of weeks on offense. The Minutemen are giving up over 250 rushing yards per game, and don't be surprised to see Western Michigan approach that mark this week.

5. Can the Broncos stay healthy?

Certainly UMass is going to provide more of a challenge than previously thought, but if Western Michigan executes at home it's still a game they should win.

The injury list is piling up, though, and the Broncos have to be hoping they can finally get through a game, win or loss, without losing more significant pieces. Jon Henry is out for the season with a knee injury suffered this week in practice, Rontavious Atkins will miss Saturday's game with a leg injury, Eric Monette continues to miss time, Gabe Hughes will miss at least this week, and of course Alex Carder and Timmy Keith continue to sit. That's a lot of major contributors.

Western Michigan would undoubtedly love a game in which they could sit some starters for much of the second half, but this may not be that type of game after all.

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