Western Michigan needs to capitalize on Nevada’s missing pieces to get their second-ever bowl win.
- Time and Date: Monday, December 27 at 11:00 am ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan
- Weather: Dome
- Line: WMU -4.5
- All Time: 1-8
- Last Bowl Game: 2019 First Responder Bowl, 23-20 Loss
- All Time: 7-11
- Last Bowl Game: 2020 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 38-27 Win
Western Michigan’s season was a season full of frustration for the Bronco fan base. The non-conference schedule went better than expected. Just about everyone had them getting to MAC play with a record of 2-2 at best. The toss-up game was a home game against defending Mountain West Conference Champion San Jose State.
Then the Broncos stunned Pitt.
They followed that with a sturdy 23-3 win at home against the Spartans. A confident win on the road against Buffalo followed and the Broncos found themselves at 4-1 and catching a couple of votes in the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll.
Then the wheels fell off.
The Broncos would finish 3-4 the rest of the way. The season finale against the NIU Huskies was their only win against a MAC West team. The Huskies had wrapped the MAC West title and played a backup at quarterback to allow their starter time to recover for the MAC Championship Game. Suffice to say it was not an inspiring end of the season for the Broncos.
Two-point conversions kept the Nevada Wolf Pack’s season from being truly great. Nevada had three conference losses this season by a combined 6 points. They got a Power 5 win in Week 1 against Cal, handled Idaho State, and lost to Kansas State.
The Wolf Pack were 5-1 entering a game in Fresno and scored a touchdown with 0:02 left in the game to get within two points. The two-point conversion pass was caught, but the receiver couldn’t get his feet in bounds in the back of the end zone.
San Diego State held them to 21 and the Wolf Pack defense couldn’t get off the field to prevent the game-winning field goal with 1:21 left in the game.
Nevada scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime against Air Force. In the third overtime, the Falcons converted their two-point conversion play to force Nevada to match. A Wolf Pack receiver had a step running across the back of the end zone and the throw was on target. Maybe the ball was batted away, maybe the defender got there early. In any case, Nevada came up empty against Air Force for their third conference loss.
All of this to say: this 8-4 Nevada Wolf Pack team was painfully close to 10-2 or 11-1.
When WMU has the ball:
Western Michigan is a run-first offense that lines up with at least one tight end and one running back on almost every play. It’s common for them to include a second tight end to unbalance the line and extra run support. Overall, the offense is a top 50 SP+ unit and is the strength of this team.
The Broncos divide their carries between three running backs. Sean Tyler, La’Darius Jefferson, and Jaxson Kincaide get used in the Bronco backfield. Sean Tyler broke the 1,000-yard mark and rushed for the highest yards per rush. Nevada fans will recognize Jaxson Kincaide, as he transferred from Nevada to Western Michigan before the 2020 season.
The Broncos may look to run first but their best weapons are in their passing attack. Quarterback Kaleb Eleby is in his third season and has developed into one of the best passers in the MAC. He lead the MAC this season with 3,115 yards and was third in touchdowns with 21
His favorite target, Skyy Moore, is a real treat to watch play football. Moore leads the MAC in 2021 with 91 catches and 114 yards per game. The Broncos use him in the short to intermediate passing game and stretch the field with Jaylen Hall and Corey Crooms. Both Hall and Crooms are dangerous receivers but catch passes at about half the rate of Moore. Despite almost always having a tight end on the field, they do not show up in the passing game much.
On the other side of the ball, Nevada is strongest stopping the pass. Their front was responsible for 40 sacks and the back end had 13 interceptions. Their opponents have found success running the ball against them. The Wolf Pack allowed 6.4 yards per rush after adjusting for sacks.
They have a playmaker at linebacker in Daiyan Henley. He leads the defense in tackles with 103 and interceptions with four. That’s more than the entire WMU defense.
They are anchored in the interior by two senior defensive tackles. Tristan Nichols lead the team with 10 sacks and Dom Peterson was a run stopper with 10 total tackles for loss.
What to watch
Western Michigan is going to run the ball frequently, and if they find success, they will not stop. The Wolf Pack may stack the box if they don’t get negative plays and force longer third-down tries.
In passing downs, Eleby will need time to get rid of the ball and the receivers have to find space against the Wolf Pack defense. Eleby is not a statue in the pocket, but is not a threat to take off either. Nevada can get to the quarterback and make passing situations extremely difficult conversions.
When Nevada has the ball:
Nevada is missing two key people that shaped their fantastic season. Head Coach Jay Norvell has taken the intra-conference Colorado State job, while quarterback Carson Strong has declared for the NFL Draft and will not participate in the Quick Lane Bowl.
It’s a major blow to this true air raid offense to be losing a quarterback who passed for 4,186 yards and 36 touchdowns with a 70 percent completion rate.
Command of the air raid is probably given to six-foot-nine senior Nate Cox. He has appeared in clean-up duty in three games this season, and for his limited time, he has performed well. He is 14-of-20 passing, 158 yards, and a touchdown.
The offense spreads the ball around, but Romeo Doubs lead the team in catches, yards, and touchdowns in 2021. He shows up when they need him. In their four losses, he had a combined stat line 46 catches, 610 yards, and 5 touchdowns. That’s pretty much half
Tight end Cole Turner has 10 touchdown catches and is a threat in the red zone. Toa Taua is the main running back used by the Wolf Pack. They use him in the passing game as well as running the ball. He has a total of 176 total touches for 974 yards and 6 touchdowns. Not bad for a running back in an air raid offense.
The coaching change throws a wrench into all of this. Coach Norvell is bringing his offensive coordinator Matt Mumme to Colorado State with him. The play calling on Monday is likely to be different than what is on tape.
The Bronco defense is the weakest unit on the field in this game and has not seen an air raid offense all season. WMU can be burned in the passing game, but that may be different with the running game being seldomly used.
Defensive coordinator Lou Esposito lets the front seven handle the run game and put the cornerbacks on islands and that can get them into hot water at times. Safety rotations have been late or missing as well. If Carson Strong was playing in this game, the defense would have their work cut out for them.
MAC Defensive Player of the Year Ali Fayad is a defensive end that leads the team in tackles for loss (16) and sacks (11.5). The defense as a whole combined for 37 sacks and 89 tackles for loss. This is a defense that tries very hard to be aggressive and efficient.
Despite the aggression getting after the quarterback and stopping the run in the backfield, the secondary only converted 35 pass break-ups into three interceptions. Junior cornerback Dorian Jackson had 11 break-ups to himself.
What to watch
This is where things are going to get interesting. The Broncos could get torched by a strong passing attack, or an inexperienced quarterback could be a little overwhelmed and struggle.
The interim coach for this game is the running backs coach from the regular season, so the Wolf Pack could feature the run more out of preference and take some pressure off a quarterback that has seen limited action.
Does Nevada have a game plan that is consistent with their previous game film? Can the Broncos tackle in space and contain an offense they haven’t seen before? This match-up in the game will be an absolute wild card.
Western Michigan should be able to run the ball against this Nevada front. The Nevada offense won’t be able to lean on Carson Strong to execute the air raid as well as they have been able to this season. The Bronco defense will give up an explosive play or two along the way, plus with usual bowl game weirdness, expect some points.