As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its 2020 non-conference schedule on September 26th at Western Michigan.
WMU 2019 IN REVIEW
Tim Lester, a familiar name to all Syracuse fans, has had a solid, though not spectacular, three seasons so far at Western Michigan.
The Broncos have not had a losing season under Lester so far, and in the past two years, they’ve finished 7-6 and played in two bowl games, while finishing second in the MAC West.
2019 had the promise of breakthrough for Lester. Though they were overmatched against Power 5 opponents Syracuse and Michigan State (they lost those two games by a combined 103-50), WMU went on a three-game winning streak in November, vaulting them to 5-2 in MAC play after a dramatic 37-34 win over Ohio in overtime.
Playing for a 6-2 record and a tie for the MAC West regular season title, the Broncos laid an egg against Northern Illinois in their final regular season game, dropping a 17-14 matchup. It was the lowest point total for WMU in any game in 2019, and they went on to lose in the First Responder Bowl to Western Kentucky, 23-20.
The loss to the Hilltoppers was the final game for two stalwarts of the Western Michigan program, quarterback Jon Wassink and running back LeVante Bellamy.
Wassink was WMU’s starter for the last three seasons under center, and finished his senior campaign with All-Third Team MAC honors after throwing for 3,097 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The Broncos will miss two-time All-MAC First Teamer Bellamy even more. In 2019, he led the nation in rushing touchdowns (23) in 2019, and was 10th in total rushing yards (1,472).
WHO’S BACK FOR THE BRONCOS
Lester returns an intriguing mix of seniors in the trenches and talented underclassmen in key skill positions that could make 2020 an auspicious year for the former Syracuse offensive coordinator.
Though the Broncos lost four-year starting center Luke Juriga, linemen Jaylon Moore and and Mike Caliendo were named to All-MAC teams in 2019, and are part of four starting linemen returning on the front five.
The question remains how the Broncos will make up for the losses of their starting quarterback and running back. Those duties will likely fall to a pair of sophomores, who will likely determine the success of the 2020 offense.
Sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby started four games in 2018, showing some promise by completing 63 percent of his passes before redshirting in 2019. Fellow sophomore Sean Tyler played understudy to Bellamy well, racking up 390 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Nevada grad transfer Jaxson Kincaide should also be a candidate for carries.
The Broncos also return Skyy Moore, who emerged as the team’s best receiver late in the year, combining for 335 of his 802 receiving yards in the final three games, and D’Wayne Eskridge, who has been featured as a two-way player at corner and wide receiver in his time at WMU.
The defense has a similar story with plenty of seniors returning, all from Lester’s first recruiting class.
Defensive linemen Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley combined for 90 tackles in 2019, while linebacker Treshaun Hayward had 142 total tackles and was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year. In the secondary, senior AJ Thomas (67 tackles) and junior All-MAC cornerback Patrick Lupro join Eskridge as key returners, while Pitt grad transfer Therran Coleman also figures to contribute, as well.
But only six starters are returning on defense, and Lester will need more production from underclassmen Will McCabe and Branden Fiske on the defensive line, and linebacker Corvin Moment, who was ruled academically ineligible for most of the 2019 season. (Moment did return for the First Responder Bowl.)
2020 OUTLOOK AND ANALYSIS
The first seven games will be telling for Western Michigan’s season. After opening against FCS Colgate, the Broncos will be on the road for four of the next six games, including a week two matchup at Cincinnati and a Sept. 19 date with Notre Dame. A home game against Syracuse follows before a tough matchup at Ball State.
If the Broncos can manage their way through that and steal a game against Syracuse or Cincinnati while taking care of Ball State, a Week 7 matchup against Central Michigan can determine control for the MAC West and a standout season for Lester.
On the other hand, if Western Michigan struggles to start the year, they may end up scrapping like they have in the past three years to bowl eligibility if their sophomores at key positions aren’t quite ready to take the next step forward.