As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its homestand when Western Michigan comes to the Carrier Dome on Sept. 21.
AN UP-AND-DOWN SEASON
Former Syracuse offensive coordinator Tim Lester had quite an up-and-down 2018 season.
After starting the season 0-2 against two Power 5 teams that finished inside the top 15 (Syracuse and Michigan), the Broncos went on a six-game winning streak with three key MAC wins by a margin of seven points or less. The offense was humming during that streak, with the Broncos averaging 41 points per game.
Quarterback Jon Wassink was off to an auspicious start to the season, throwing for 1,994 yards and 16 touchdowns through the first eight games.
But disaster struck against Toledo, with Wassink injuring his ankle in the first quarter of a critical matchup against Toledo. Western Michigan never looked the same after that, losing to the Rockets 51-24.
That started a three-game tailspin for the Broncos, with losses to Ohio and Ball State. True freshman backup quarterback Kaleb Eleby was thrown immediately into action, and the results were varied. He threw for 1,092 yards and four touchdowns (plus three interceptions) in the final four games of the season, but was wildly inconsistent.
On the one hand, he threw for 285 yards on 19 of 35 passing in a thrilling 28-21 win over eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois to close the season. On the other, he completed just 10 of 19 passes for 152 yards and two interceptions in a 59-14 rout at the hands of Ohio.
But it was the defense that struggled during that streak, allowing 50.6 points per game during the losing streak. It led to the dismissal of former Syracuse assistant and then-defensive coordinator Tim Daoust.
Lou Esposito was promoted to defensive coordinator but didn’t improve the defense much. His defense was gashed for 490 yards in a 49-18 loss in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to BYU.
And so ended the roller coaster season. The Broncos finished with a 7-6 record.
WHO TO WATCH FOR
Despite the rocky season, there’s plenty of optimism heading into 2019, mainly because of the return of nearly the entire 2018 team that includes both quarterbacks, 1,000+ yard rusher, most of its offensive line, top two wide receivers, several key defensive linemen, and nearly its entire linebacker core and defensive backs.
Wassink has had season-ending injuries the last two years. In 2017, he broke his collarbone, and last year, as we wrote above, he injured his ankle against Toledo. Wassink participated in 7-on-7 drills and will be fully healthy when the team returns for fall camp.
If Wassink can stay healthy, the Broncos are as good as any team in the MAC. If not, Eleby is also back, and has plenty of meaningful reps under his belt. Two of his favorite targets (Jayden Reed, D’Wayne Eskridge) also return. The duo combined for 1,573 receiving yards. Reed hauled in eight touchdowns while Eskridge collected three.
But at its base, the Broncos are a run team, and they return running back LeVante Bellamy, who rushed for 1,228 yards and six touchdowns last year.
Opening holes for Bellamy will be all-conference right guard Luke Juriga and returning left guard Mike Caliendo, and left tackle Jaylon Moore. Western Michigan also welcomes Algonquin (Ill.) native Joacheim Price to its offensive line. The three-star prospect was rated just outside the top 1,000 recruits on 24/7 Sports and is a 6’8″, 315 prospect.
Syracuse transfer Juwan Dowels applied for a sixth year of eligibility, and should he get it, he could build off a year in which he defended 11 passes, 33 tackles (1.5 for loss) and two interceptions.
He was by far their best corner, with converted safety Stefan Claiborne and converted wide receiver Anton Curtis never looking comfortable in coverage. That secondary, though, should be boosted by JUCO transfer Ozziah Williams.
In front of them are three returning linebackers: Alex Grace, Drake Spears, and Najee Clayton. Spears and Grace were the teams leading tacklers in 2018, combining for 169.
The defensive line is nearly as experienced, with Ali Fayad (7.5 sacks), Ralph Holley (6), Eric Assoua (4.5), DeShawn Foster (2) and Antonio Balabani (1.5) all returning.
Western Michigan, if healthy, should be among the teams to compete for a MAC Championship in a crowded field of teams. It may mirror last season’s fast start, but it remains to be seen if it’ll be a brutal end.
It’s expected that they’ll start the season 2-2 with wins against Monmouth and Georgia State, and losses to Michigan State and Syracuse (we’re predicting a 52-35 Orange victory) before four winnable games against Ball State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan and Miami (Ohio).
That will set up for a tough finish to the season, with coin flip games against Northern Illinois, Ohio and Toledo, and the potential for an eight-win season and a return to a bowl game for the second straight year.