Game 10 preview: Western Michigan Broncos
This afternoon, EMU plays the Western Michigan Broncos in the final, and this year, meaningless, game of the Michigan MAC Trophy round-robin. We’re going to double up and use this game preview as the open thread for the game also. The game will not be televised, but can be watched streaming on MAC All-Access and, as always, can be heard on WEMU-FM.
Record: 3-6. 2-6 in FBS games. 2-3 in the MAC.
Recent games: Last Friday they lost a tough game in Mount Pleasant, falling 26-22. A week earlier they came up just one touchdown short against Northern Illinois. Three weeks ago they had their last win, but that was over Akron.
Quality wins: None. They had convincing wins over Akron, Ball State, and Nicholls State. Akron and Ball State are a combined 2-15 in FBS games this year. Nicholls State is a 2-7 FCS team. In fact, it’s been more than two years since the Broncos have defeated a team that finished that season with a winning record — amazingly enough, EMU has accomplished that more recently!
Embarrassing losses: The offense struggled in the season opener at Michigan State, and again a few weeks later, against Idaho, scoring 14 and 13 points, respectively. But the Bronco’s most embarrassing loss of the year is probably the 44-20 nationally televised beating they took at the hands of Notre Dame in mid-October.
Last meeting: Last November, the Broncos won 35-14 in front of a tiny 3,000-person crowd at Rynearson Stadium. It’s nothing to brag about, however, because everyone else beat EMU in 2009 also.
All-time series: Like most opponents, EMU trails in the all-time series, 15-28-2. Also, like many MAC opponents, the teams first met in the early 1900s — 1906 in this case — played regularly for the first third of the century, and then didn’t meet again until the 1970s. EMU has won just two of the last 13 games, most recently an odd 19-2 game in Rynearson Stadium in 2007, in which the halftime score was 3-2.
Coach: After coaching various positions at various schools through much of the 1980s, including three years as a high school head coach, in 1992, Cubit was hired as the head coach at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. In five years at the Division III (non-scholarship) school, Cubit managed a winning season every year but his first, compiling a 34-18-1 record, and earning two conference championships. In 1997, Gary Darnell, with whom Cubit had served on the Florida staff in 1989, was hired as the head coach at Western Michigan, and he brought Cubit in as his offensive coordinator. They quickly turned things around, and the team that had finished 2-9 in 1996 went 22-12 over the next three years. This success helped mark Cubit as an up-and-coming assistant coach, and over the next five seasons he jumped from Missouri to Rutgers to Stanford.
Meanwhile, at Western Michigan, things had cooled off for Darnell a year shortly after Cubit departed. From 2001 to 2003 the team was 14-21, and the slide culminated in a 1-10 2004 season, following which Darnell was fired, and his former assistant was hired to replace him.
In the last five and three-quarters years under Cubit, the Broncos have improved from the worst of the Darnell years, but they’ve not returned to the heights they had attained. They’ve finished with three winning seasons, the best being a 9-3 regular season in 2008 (9-4 with a loss to Rice in the Texas Bowl) , and two 5-7 seasons, and they appear headed for either 5-7 or 6-6 this year.
Offense: The Bronco offense is led by sophomore quarterback Alex Carder, who has completed 228 of 372 passes (61%) for 2,571 yards (6.9 yards per attempt), 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Carder is also the team’s #2 rusher, with 90 carries for 182 yards (2.0 yards per carry) and 6 rushing touchdowns, but it’s a pass-first offense that only runs the ball 42% of the time. Far and away the top passing targets are senior wide receivers Jordan White, with 72 catches for 1,057 yards (14.7 yards per catch) and 8 touchdowns, and Juan Nunez, with 70 catches for 768 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and 7 touchdowns. Other key receivers are junior wide receiver Robert Arnheim and sophomore wide receiver Ansel Ponder. On average, Carder only throws one or two passes per game to a tight end, and one or two to a running back; the vast majority of throws go to wide receivers. The top running back is Aaron Winchester, who matches Carder’s 90 carries, gaining 266 yards but no touchdowns. Brian Fields also generally gets several carries per game.
It bears repeating that this is a pass-first offense,–the number one passing offense in the MAC, but rushing for fewer than 100 yards per game–which is not terribly surprising given that Cubit played wide receiver and quarterback in college. Carder’s performance is probably the key to the Broncos. In their three wins, Carder threw for 11 touchdowns and just one interception, resulting in quarterback ratings of 127, 100, and 152. In their first five losses, Carder threw for seven touchdowns and ten interceptions, for quarterback ratings of 71, 63, 48, 63, and 82. The notable exception to the pattern was last week’s game against Central Michigan, in which Carder threw for three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 101 rating; four fumbles lost by the Broncos made the difference in that game.
Defense: Western Michigan has roughly an average MAC defense. They rank fourth in passing defense, seventh, exactly in the middle, in scoring defense, eighth in yards per game allowed, and ninth in rushing defense. One statistical oddity is that, despite a generally average defense, they allow among the fewest first downs in the MAC, which suggests that maybe they don’t give up many short to medium gains but are susceptible to big plays, which would account for yards without many first downs.
Keys to watch: I see three keys to this game:
- Turnover margin. As I mentioned, turnovers have plagued the Broncos in their losses. Usually it’s interceptions, because they pass so much, but last week it was fumbles. EMU’s defense has nabbed just two interceptions this season, the fewest of any FBS team.
- Bronco passing offense versus EMU passing defense. The Broncos like to pass, and they have four dangerous wide receivers. If EMU’s linebackers and secondary aren’t up to the task, this could get just as ugly as Central Michigan’s visit to Rynearson Stadium was this fall.
- EMU outside running versus Western Michigan’s run defense. If EMU runs to the outside, with sweeps and reverses, they have the potential to break some big plays against Western Michigan’s relatively weak run defense. Also, a successful EMU running game will help keep the Bronco’s potent passing offense off the field.
Predictions: I’m seeing Western Michigan listed as about a 19-point favorite, which probably suggests something along the lines of a 40-21 Bronco win. EMU is coming off a bye week and should be well-rested and prepared, while the Broncos have had two straight tough losses. Realistically, I think Western Michigan will probably (85%) win this game, but most likely by a 7-10 point margin. So let’s call it 31-21, Broncos.
OK, that’s what I’ll be watching for in this game. Discuss!