Nobody is giving Western Michigan (1-10, 1-6 MAC) much of any chance tonight as the Broncos take to the road to take on 14th-ranked Northern Illinois (11-0, 7-0) in DeKalb, Ill.
It's hard to blame anyone for overlooking WMU in this matchup, but of course all sports fans know that an upset can happen at any time. As unlikely as it may be, BroncoBlitz.com looks at what WMU must do to pull off the unthinkable.
1. Monster effort from the defensive line
Simply put, WMU is going to need an effort from the defensive line that they haven't yet gotten this year. The same could honestly be said of the entire defensive unit, but particularly the line as allowing NIU to control the line and get a consistent surge is going to be a death knell.
'Easier said than done' would be a massive understatement. The Broncos have to hope for what would, really, be a career-defining moment for Travonte Boles as a leader of the line in his final game in the Brown and Gold. And, frankly, it still probably wouldn't be enough. As P.J. Fleck said at Saturday's practice, the combination of NIU's talented offensive line and Jordan Lynch is lethal.
"I think that their offensive line is really good. I think they do enough to give [Lynch] the ability. All you have to do is give him six inches and he'll find a way. They're not going to sit there and road drain a Purdue team 15 yards back but they're really good, they're really smart, and they're very good at what they do. They don't do a ton, but what they do formationally is kill you," Fleck said.
2. Score first-- in the second half
Every underdog's key is to jump ahead early and give themselves life. If there's one thing NIU has done, though, it's allow supposedly inferior opponents to hang around for, well, exactly one half before putting the pedal to the metal in the third and fourth quarters.
Thus, while WMU could score first or even lead at halftime, it's going to be hard to believe in the Broncos' ability to pull this monumental upset unless they come out and show something in the second half. That means scoring first and taking a lead.
As much of an uphill battle as it would still be from that point, having a lead on the road in the second half would give the Broncos the morale boost they'd need to make a game of it deep into the final frame.
3. Dust off the Northwestern gameplan defensively
Just like all but one of WMU's games in 2013, the Broncos came up short at Northwestern 38-17. A positive that could be taken from it, though, was the job WMU did for much of the game containing NU's dynamic QB threat, Kain Colter.
Again, like we've seen many times this year, WMU wore down as the game went on and the offensive struggles piled up. Northwestern eventually began ripping off yardage in chunks on the ground. Schematically, though, it seemed that some of the ideas were working against the Wildcats' attack.
Northern Illinois' game isn't entirely similar to the Wildcats', but if anything WMU could key on Jordan Lynch even more than they did with Colter, as more of the Huskies' offense runs through him. The challenge is that it hasn't mattered how much teams have keyed on him, Lynch just keeps running through them-- often literally.
"I don't think you stop [Lynch]. I really believe that," Fleck said. "I think he's one of the few guys in college football that you don't stop. He's such a creator I don't think we'll ever stop him, but we need to maintain him. We have to make sure his runs of 60 are 6 yards, not 60."
4. Finish drives
If there's a key that has haunted Western Michigan over the past couple of weeks, here it is. Unfinished business on drives into the red zone has haunted the Broncos all year, but it hasn't been any more visible than in close losses to instate rivals Eastern and Central Michigan.
It'll take a little luck, because NIU excels at stopping drives in their own territory. Despite giving up over 425 yards per game, the Huskies rank third in the conference in scoring defense giving up 24.5 per game. That's thanks in large part to a plus-13 turnover margin, second only to Buffalo in the league.
So yes, among all the other advantages that NIU comes in with, they're also the second best team in turnover margin in the MAC to WMU's 12th (the Broncos still remain at -7 after a couple of bounce-back weeks). It's hard to attribute it to luck, either, as the Huskies' 17 interceptions as a team jump off the stat sheet.
Nobody said anything would come easily this week. Certainly this key won't, but the Broncos simply can't leave any points on the board to have any shot in DeKalb.
5. Shorten the game
Possibly the most realistic of the keys, WMU has a chance to keep this game closer than expected if they can control the clock and keep the chains moving on offense. As mentioned earlier, the Huskies will give up some yards. Maybe the bigger key here is to avoid giving up big plays, as Fleck talked about, and instead keep the Huskies hemmed in a bit.
The defense is still likely to be worn down eventually, but that's the best formula to staying within striking distance until perhaps a timely NIU turnover. Again, WMU is going to need luck to stay in it, but they've got to give themselves a chance to capitalize in a meaningful way.