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October 25, 2013

Five keys to UMass

The schedule finally lets up a bit this week for Western Michigan, who has mostly run a gauntlet to this point of the season. This week, the Broncos take a roadie to Foxboro, Mass. to take on the struggling UMass Minutemen (1-6, 1-2 MAC).

WMU has a very good chance this week to pick up its first win of the season, provided the Broncos can accomplish the following five keys.

1. Take care of the football

Could there be a more obvious key, outside of "outscore the opponent"? Probably not, but it simply can't be overstated this week how important turnovers will be.

Make no mistake, this game is going to be close. There's simply not a likely scenario where it's not, given both teams' struggles all year long to put points on the board.

Western Michigan actually holds an edge in many, if not most, statistical categories (probably the first time we've heard that all year). Where the Broncos lag behind UMass is in the all-important turnover margin. Now, the Minutemen aren't world-beaters in the category at -2, but it's a heck of a lot better than WMU's ugly -12 number.

Don't be surprised if one team's mistake turns into the big play that decides this game.

2. Don't break on defense

Western Michigan has a good chance to keep UMass' point total down significantly if they can come up with stops in their own territory. Given UMass kicker Blake Lucas' struggles thus far (2-for-7) on field goals, points even in the red zone are far from a guarantee.

What the Broncos can do by getting these stops is not only prevent points, but also get opportunities for decent field position should the Minutemen gamble and go for it on fourth down. Since field position has been among the biggest problems for this team all year, it's not a trivial idea.

3. Pull off a trick play

The only memorable trick play WMU has pulled off this year was the pop-up onside kick the Broncos recovered against Nicholls, not coincidentally the closest game WMU has yet played. Of course the tightness of that game had more to do with the opponent's talent level than that play, but the point is more that we don't know entirely what to expect from WMU's play-calling if a game goes to the wire.

Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca did utilize a couple of packages with safety Justin Currie and cornerback Ronald Zamort on his side of the ball last week, but the wildcat and reverse looks still weren't trickery in the traditional sense.

A well-timed play in the vein of the Nicholls pop kick, like a big turnover, is another way to turn the tide of a close, low scoring game.

4. Control the clock

Here's something the Broncos have been unable to manage all season, and in fact something I had more or less given up on. In looking at this matchup, though, it may actually happen.

Consider that WMU's ground game has found some success in recent weeks, including a very impressive 14-carry, 120-yard performance from Dareyon Chance last week.

UMass, meanwhile, has the worst rush defense WMU will have played to this point, and it's not particularly close. In fairness, the same could be said of WMU's defense. But UMass doesn't have the running back talent to make the Broncos pay quite as much.

It would be a totally different dynamic from what fans have gotten used to if WMU could control the clock and pace of the game. If they're ever going to do it, this (and next week against Eastern Michigan) is the game.

5. Find a return game

This, unfortunately, is not going to be an easy one to fulfill. While UMass doesn't do all that many things well relative to their MAC peers, one thing they do a good job of is kick coverage.

That's been a major problem for WMU, as their return team appears to be going backwards as the weeks roll on. While the coaches have tried plenty of options back deep, it's probably time to look elsewhere for the problem. They just aren't getting the blocking they need.

Certainly, that's a huge problem for a team that already has enough issues with field position. Lately, even when they're fielding a kickoff, the Broncos have been starting inside their own 20 and sometimes 10 because of their struggles in the return game. That's not going to cut it this week, but it's also not going to get any easier.

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