Before the season started, this weekend's game at Iowa looked like the most winnable of Western Michigan's three Big Ten matchups. Three weeks in, that appears to be accurate, but nobody thought the Broncos would be coming in winless.
From a purely standings-oriented standpoint, this game doesn't change much. WMU could go into Mid-American Conference play 0-4 and it wouldn't directly affect their ability to win the conference, as far-fetched as that may seem.
It does, however, have a potentially great effect on whether WMU can get to bowl eligibility (as 6-2 in the MAC seems like a stretch) and also on potential momentum headed into the meat of the season.
Fans' questions were partially answered on Saturday in Evanston. While WMU lost at Northwestern by three touchdowns, the fear of a team mentally broken by a loss to FCS Nicholls was not realized.
Instead, the Broncos played inspired early in the game and hung tough throughout, making things at least interesting deep into the second half.
"I think our kids responded exactly how I expected them to respond," head coach P.J. Fleck said Tuesday. "They're continuing to fight and our kids are starting to make some more plays. We're starting to see them make plays they haven't made before. Once they start gaining confidence and seeing that and believing in themselves, that's where the growth comes from."
Mistakes were made, the passing game continued to struggle, and the run defense was shredded for much of the game, but the effort was there. It's still easy enough to believe that the players are bought into Fleck's philosophy.
That's why this week-- and the next two weeks, especially-- are so important. One has to believe that the players can only take so much losing. Expectations aren't sky-high for a win in Iowa City, but a performance that allows WMU to hold their heads high will go a long way heading home to take on Kent State, which looks like a must-win.
Iowa may be beatable. They're favored by 17, which isn't an unreasonable number, but their lack of an explosive offense tends to keep underdogs around (see: Missouri State).
Fleck, as is his norm, would not give Iowa any bulletin board material on Tuesday. Instead, he talked up their program, head coach Kirk Ferentz, and the challenges they'd provide to a sometimes shaky run defense.
"It's Iowa. They're tough, they're physical, and they're going to run the ball and they're not afraid to tell you that. You almost know what plays are coming, but they're just going to continue to pound you. That's Iowa. That's Kirk Ferentz. That's Hayden Fry," Fleck said.
Behind big running back Mark Weisman, Iowa will continue to be Iowa.
Whether Fleck and defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham can devise a way to stop that remains to be seen.