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Syracuse vs. Western Michigan football preview: Q&A with Hustle Belt

Let’s learn more about the Broncos, shall we?

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange kick off the 2018 season on the road against the MAC’s Western Michigan Broncos, presenting a tougher test than normal in the opener — but one that could give us some clues as to what type of year we’re in for. We’ve never played WMU before, but there are quite a few staff members there that know us pretty well. So that should make this interesting...

Since we’re not Western Michigan fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. Hustle Belt’s Steve Helwick (who you should follow on Twitter) joins us to chat all about the Broncos.

First: Anything visiting fans should know about Waldo Stadium or Kalamazoo?

Western Michigan’s been rather successful at Waldo Stadium, formerly known as “The Boatyard” during the P.J. Fleck era. In the last three seasons, the Broncos have fared 14-4 in Kalamazoo but are just 0-1 against Power 5 opponents (Michigan State in 2015). Hosting Power 5 foes and scheduling home-and-homes is a growing trend in the MAC, and the teams often pack the house on these occasions.

One interesting fact about Kalamazoo is that the city hosted a College GameDay episode in 2016. The Broncos’ Week 1 opponent is one of 12 Power 5 programs yet to lure GameDay to campus.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Lester’s offense was pretty bad at Syracuse, but it’s been much better at WMU so far. What’s different, from what you know of his Orange experience?

Tim Lester’s offense was inconsistent in his first year on campus, and injuries definitely contributed to that. A strong, concerted offensive effort nearly upset the USC Trojans in Los Angeles on Week 1, but just seven days later, the unit looked incompetent at Michigan State. Lester’s offense showed plenty of highs throughout the season including a 71-point outing in a 7-overtime victory and a 55-3 wreckage of Ball State. But scoring was an issue in several key losses, including stumbles against Akron and Toledo. With a healthy Jon Wassink entering his second year as a starter and a deep backfield, the offense should amend the inconsistencies it faced in 2017.

Lester’s offense is probably a step ahead of the 2013-15 Syracuse units because he inherited loads of talent from a 13-win Western Michigan program that was one possession away from perfection. Players like Chukwuma Okorafor, John Keenoy, and Jamauri Bogan are some of the most talented players in the conference, and that played in the first-year head coach’s favor.

Are you aware of Lester’s illustrious history as XFL star “Submarine” and/or his collectable trading cards detailing his many would-be exploits?

I was slightly aware that Tim Lester had XFL experience, but I was not familiar with his “Submarine” nickname or the football tattoo. My question is, why does this card not have the same value as the T206 Honus Wagner?

How big a of a loss is Sam Beal in the secondary? Do the Broncos have capable back-fills at corner?

The loss of Sam Beal is extremely critical for this defense. In terms of pass defense, the Broncos were a middle-of-the-pack team and losing a cornerback destined to be selected in the top two or three rounds (had he not entered supplemental draft) does no favors. Instead, Emanuel Jackson and Obbie Jackson will line up against opposing receivers. Emanuel has very little experience but Obbie has three interceptions including a pick-six under his belt. Luckily, the secondary still retains strong safety Justin Tranquill. Despite three ACL tears, Tranquill is still one of the best defensive backs in the MAC and should provide assistance to the younger corners.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Jon Wassink excel most, and how can he find success against Syracuse, specifically?

Wassink is excellent at throwing screen passes. The junior completes passes at a high rate (64.2%), averaging about seven yards per throw. Since Corey Davis left the program, the Broncos aren’t really equipped with a slew of deep threats. Instead, they elect to throw dozens of bubble screens and halfback screens each game. Wassink is best in the pocket but he’s not immobile. He’s a tough, competitive runner who doesn’t shy away from contact when he calls his own number. Western Michigan has even utilized him as a receiver on multiple trick plays, where he has two receptions and two touchdowns.

Syracuse has struggled with passing defense in the past, specifically creating turnovers. This allows Wassink a little breathing room and the ability to test the riskier throws he typically avoids. To beat Syracuse, he has to take advantage of the Orange secondary, as he did against teams like Ball State and Buffalo a year ago. Consistently connecting with the wideouts for 10-15 yard throws should be the key for Wassink to open up Western Michigan’s offense and leave Waldo with a win.

How does Western Michigan plan to stop (or at least slow down) Eric Dungey?

Eric Dungey’s an incredibly talented quarterback, and Western Michigan’s archival learned that the hard way last September. Dungey tore apart the Central Michigan defense through both the air and ground in a complete blowout of a game. Dungey’s going to be Dungey, which doesn’t bode well for the Western Michigan cornerbacks. He’ll likely throw for beyond 300 yards, and it’s up to the Broncos to add interceptions to his stat sheet. The offenses should dominate on both sides of this game, so turnovers will be the deciding factor.

Is there an unsung WMU player that SU fans should become a bit more familiar with?

Western Michigan’s unsung hero is center John Keenoy. The Broncos have produced an offensive lineman selected in rounds 1-4 of the NFL Draft in three straight years, and Keenoy will probably make that four. The senior has not allowed a sack since his freshman campaign, protecting with a good balance of strength and mobility. Keenoy thrives as a run blocker as well, leading the charge for the duo of Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy — two names that could give Syracuse’s defense a handful on Friday night.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond Eric Dungey, who’s your biggest concern on the Syracuse side?

Syracuse’s greatest weapon outside of Eric Dungey is Dino Babers. Babers doesn’t work with 5-star caliber talent at Syracuse but he is an incredible coach who has the capability of extracting a win against any opponent. The Orange played tough at Florida State, Miami, and LSU in 2017, and claimed the upset of the year over Clemson in the Carrier Dome one season after stunning Virginia Tech. Babers’ teams often play tough on the road, and the offensive mastermind should have no problem dissecting Western Michigan’s defense and exposing its weaknesses in film sessions leading up to the game.

Prediction time: Final score, and what happens on the way there?

Syracuse leaves Kalamazoo with a 42-34 victory. The teams will trade leads throughout the first half, but the Orange pull ahead in the third quarter behind Dungey’s arm. Western Michigan’s offensive production stems from the run game, where the Broncos break free for several 20+ yard runs. No team will leave with a lopsided win in the turnover margin, but Syracuse’s offense will slightly outplay Western Michigan’s at Waldo Stadium. The Orange will earn their sixth straight win over a MAC program, dating back to 2010.

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Thanks again to Steve for taking the time out to answer these. Be sure to follow Hustle Belt and check out the site too, for all things MAC.