Nobody will deny that Western Michigan had a prolific passing attack in 2011. The Broncos threw for 3946 yards and 40 touchdowns, ranking them ninth in the country in passing yardage. Jordan White set school records and led the nation in receiving. In short, the passing game would suggest a team that was better than 7-6.
However, on the rare occasions that the passing game wasn't clicking, the running attack was not there to pick up the slack. Perhaps the most notable example of this was a windy day in DeKalb, Ill., when the Broncos were routed by Northern Illinois by a final of 51-22. Alex Carder was never able to quite adjust to the conditions, and the Broncos were outgained 494-91 on the ground. This inability to move the sticks consistently with the ground game led to short possessions and a tired defense.
The defense is not absolved of any responsibility for some of the ugly numbers put up against WMU in 2011. But consider that, in Western Michigan's six losses, they ran for just 486 yards with a 3.2 per-carry average. This means that the seven wins produced 1043 yards on 4.9 yards per rush. Clearly, this is a better team with balance, which comes as no surprise, but has to be a point of emphasis this offseason. Head coach Bill Cubit doesn't shy away from this.
"It's hard to be a great run team and a great passing team, because of practice time and schemes, and things like that," Cubit said prior to spring practice. "We're never going to be able to run the ball consistently for 200-plus yards, we just can't do it. If we get to be a 150 yard team consistently, that'll be pretty good, because of how well we throw the ball."
The numbers back Cubit up here. The Broncos averaged 149 yards on the ground in their seven wins, and while that is not a prolific average, it is exactly what Cubit set as a goal.
Again, poor defense played a factor in all of WMU's losses except for the 14-10 debacle at Eastern Michigan. One wonders, though, if Toledo puts up 66 points on a day that Western Michigan could play more of a ball control offense. Or, if the passing game could get untracked in DeKalb after a couple of long runs.
This all leads to the question of who will step up to carry the football in 2012. The burden can't fall only on the running backs; the offensive line has to stay healthier and play better. The running backs, though, are still a bit of a puzzle. Tevin Drake burst onto the scene in 2010 with over ten yards per carry down the stretch, and Brian Fields and Antoin Scriven have shown flashes. Dareyon Chance had a breakout 2012 spring, and may add speed and elusiveness to the mix. Neither Drake nor Fields, though, could provide a steady hand through last season, and Drake missed the spring with a leg injury. Chance impressed in the spring with 196 yards on 20 carries in the scrimmages, but at just 5-foot-5 and 160 pounds, he isn't built to be an every down back.
Making this matter even more important is the inexperience in the wide receiving corps. Outside of senior Eric Monette and junior Josh Schaffer, the unit will be relying on mostly freshmen to catch passes from Alex Carder. There is little doubt the Broncos will be productive through the air in 2012, but Carder may not have a target to fall back on in critical situations like Jordan White. It's these situations, like short and mid-range third downs, that the running game will have to be more reliable in converting.
With four juniors that each bring something different to the table, there are no more excuses for the Western Michigan running game. The talent and experience is there, and it is time for the Broncos to field a balanced and dangerous offense every time they take the field.