College football season is upon us, and Week 1 is almost underway.
The Wolverines will be hosting the Western Michigan Broncos out of the Mid-American Conference, and the maize and blue have done quite well against WMU and the MAC in general. Michigan is 7-0 all-time when facing the Broncos, and it is are 33-1 all-time against MAC foes. The last time the two teams squared off was back in 2018 when Michigan destroyed WMU, 49-3 in Ann Arbor.
We all know that the maize and blue had a blunder of a season last year going 2-4 — losing all three home games. Michigan is hoping to quickly turn last season into ancient history when they play this Saturday. The Wolverines should have an easy game on paper as they’re 17 point favorites as of Wednesday.
But favorites don’t always come out on top. Western Michigan is coming off of a 4-2 season last year in their conference-only schedule. The Broncos are coming in with a high-powered offense that averaged 42 points-per-game last year – ninth-best in the entire country. WMU is going to come in with belief that they can compete, and it’s going to be up to the Wolverines on how they counter.
Here are three keys to a Michigan win against the Broncos.
Don't let the underdog hang in the game
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The absolute worst thing a favorite can do is to allow the underdog to have confidence they can win the game. Michigan needs to come out of the gate strong - it needs to sustain drives and put points on the board against a very vulnerable Bronco defense. Their defense returns 10 out of 11 starters from last year, but WMU allowed 34.2 points-per-game last year. They may gain a year of experience, but it's hard to believe they can fend off the skill players that the maize and blue have. Here is where things could get tricky for the Wolverines — on defense. As mentioned earlier, Western Michigan has a very prolific offense, and it all starts with their sophomore quarterback, Kaleb Eleby. The young signal-caller threw for 1,715 yards, 18 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions last year while having the third-best passer rating in the entire country (195.08). The Broncos were in the top 10 of multiple categories last season, according to PFF: eighth-best in offensive efficiency with 89.6, seventh-best for passing with 91.1, and seventh-best in pass blocking with an 81.0 grade. It's really hard to get a full grasp as to what the Bronco offense is fully capable of since they didn't play any Power Five conferences last season, but the Wolverine pass defense must be ready for Eleby. The maize and blue ranked 96th in pass defense last season giving up 255.5 yards-per-game. I fully expect Michigan to put points up on the board Saturday, but they have to stop the Broncos from scoring. The Wolverines don't need to win 56-0, but they need to do enough to build themselves confidence, fluster Eleby, and not allow WMU to believe they can win.
Get back to running the football
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For many years the Wolverines identity was pounding the rock, and allowing their big men in the trenches to dictate the game. It seems the past three or so years, Michigan has gone away from the run-first offense, but their offense hasn't fully clicked doing so. We have heard most of the fall camp, from coaches and players alike, that Michigan plans on going back to focusing on running the football, and establishing that as their offensive identity. Hopefully, it works better than last season where the Wolverines rushed for a meager 131.5 yards-per-game, ranking 95th in the nation and 11th in the Big Ten. There are plenty of good reasons last year was atrocious from a running standpoint: the running back rotation was in shambles, Michigan found itseld down early in every game which forced it to pass, and the maize and blue run-blocking was sub-par at best. Michigan enters the 2021 season with a new running backs coach in former All-American Mike Hart, and it should have one of the best offensive lines in all of the Big Ten. It also has three really good running backs. When you mix all of those with a poor run defense that Western Michigan has — 70th-worst rushing defense in the nation with a 66.6 grade according to PFF — the Wolverines should be able to run the ball at will. I really want to see Michigan run for at least 200 yards on Saturday which will allow it to sustain plenty of drives, and give the defense breaks. It would be really nice to see one of the running backs assert themselves as the lead back going into the Washington game as well.
Execute in the red zone
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Michigan has stalled way too many drives in the past when it gets into the red zone. In the past, there is either a costly turnover, or it’s been forced to kick a field goal. A free three points is never a bad thing, but the offense needs to finish drives and put seven points on the scoreboard at the end of key drives. This could be a game that the WMU defense allows plenty of opportunities for the Wolverines to right the ship with their red-zone woes. The Bronco defense allowed touchdowns 70% of the time when the opposing offense reached the red zone last year — they only forced one turnover in the red zone last year. The maize and blue should be salivating when they reach the red zone against WMU, and it's going to be important to finish those drives with a touchdown. It may only be game one of the season come Saturday, but if the Wolverines can't finish drives against Western Michigan, it could be another year of red-zone woes. You can watch the game on Saturday, Sept. 4th at noon EDT on ESPN.