As we approach Saturday's tilt with MAC West leader Northern Illinois, BroncoBlitz.com takes a look at five factors that will decide which way the game goes.
1. Have the Broncos learned from last year?
Last time these two teams met, Western Michigan took a 15-13 lead into the break after an up-and-down first half. Then the wheels fell off.
Northern Illinois used the same two plays over and over in the third quarter to the tune of 24 points, while the Broncos weren't helped by an offense that was unable to move the chains or play ball control with any regularity. The second issue may be improved this year with WMU's newfound running game, but what about the first?
The read option and jet sweep were the bane of WMU's existence last year in DeKalb, and while the Bronco run defense has been much better this year, they haven't faced a team like NIU. The Huskies are ninth in the country at just under 250 rushing yards per game, and feature a quarterback in Jordan Lynch that is averaging well over 100 on his own.
It's one thing to expect the Broncos to improve on the 494 rushing yards they gave up to NIU last year. It's quite another to expect them to shut the ground game down enough to force the Huskies to the air.
2. Can WMU finally hold on to the ball?
Last week's game against Kent State was a microcosm of Western Michigan's problems this year. In a game that the Broncos outgained their opponents by nearly 100 yards, they still lost by 17 points. How? Six turnovers, including a backbreaking 85 yard fumble return for a score with under seven minutes to play.
While some were lamenting the occasional bad decision by Alex Carder earlier this year, replacement Tyler Van Tubbergen has struggled much more with interceptions. Van Tubbergen has moved the football effectively for the most part, but his three picks last weekend bring him to nine on the year. In fact, outside of his performance against lowly UMass, Van Tubbergen sits at three touchdowns and eight picks for the year.
He's not alone. Three more lost fumbles bring WMU's total to 22 turnovers for the season, 2.75 per game and the most in the conference. Considering this is a team that has outgained their opponents by an average of nearly sixty yards, a 3-5 record is hardly to be expected.
The silver lining in all of this is that if the Broncos can put together a game without turnovers, they may be capable of taking down even a very good team like Northern Illinois. NIU's defense is solid, but nothing the Broncos haven't seen. They can move the football enough to keep close, as long as they hold on to it.
3. Will the red zone woes continue?
This is perhaps related to the second key, as turnovers have contributed to the problem. But whether it's turnovers, missed field goals, or unsuccessful fourth down tries, Western Michigan has had way too much trouble putting points on the board when they reach the red zone.
The Broncos currently rank 12th in the MAC in red zone efficiency, scoring on 71.1% of their opportunities. Eleven times, WMU has driven inside the opponent's 20 and come up empty-handed, including three missed field goals, four turnovers, and two failed fourth down attempts.
Against a well-oiled machine like NIU, they can't afford to waste opportunities. If it's starting to sound like WMU would have to play a perfect game to beat the Huskies, well.. that might be a slight exaggeration. But they have to at least come up with three points in their red zone trips.
4. Will NIU continue to bust big plays?
Given the Huskies' propensity to keep the football on the ground, you might expect them to be a great time of possession team. If you've watched them play a lot, you'd probably know better.
It still might surprise you to learn that NIU is currently last in the conference in time of possession, perhaps proving the stat's inadequacy as a predictor. The reason is that even though the Huskies love to run the ball, they regularly break off huge runs.
I'd maintain that playing ball control is still important for the Broncos in order to keep the defense off the field and avoid being worn down. With that said, it only matters if they can avoid the big plays that gashed them over and over last time these teams met.
5. Will WMU try to beat the Huskies at their own game?
For purposes of this key, "their own game" is running the football. Certainly, WMU doesn't have someone with Jordan Lynch's style at quarterback, so the offense will look different regardless.
Keep in mind, though, that NIU has arguably the best secondary in the MAC. While they're giving up a middling 220 yards per game, much of that is due to teams having to pass in order to try to keep up with the NIU offense. They're tops in the conference, though, in pass efficiency defense, and 16th nationally in the category. This doesn't bode particularly well for Tyler Van Tubbergen and his banged up receivers.
This leads one to believe that the Broncos will have to come out in a run-first attack tomorrow to have a chance. Can the Broncos really beat NIU at their own game? Regardless, they may have to try.