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Know your opponent, week 3 edition: Western Michigan

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet. 

The Basics
Returning starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7
2012 Record: 4-8 (2-6 MAC West)
Coach: P.J. Fleck, 1st year

2012 Capsule

The third opponent Northwestern will face in 2013 will be the third one with a brand new head coach. Just like Sonny Dykes at Cal and Scott Schafer at Syracuse, P.J. Fleck is getting his first shot at owning his own sideline this season. He takes over for Bill Cubit, who last season watched the Broncos go from preseason MAC West contender to a 4-8 record, two conference wins and a fifth-place division finish. WMU started the season with a 17-point loss at Illinois, which didn’t look nearly as bad the first week of the season as it did the last. The Broncos followed up by winning two of their last three nonconference games and drew even at 3-3 after blitzing UMass at home. The ship had been leveled, so to speak, just in time for WMU to lose five of its last six games.

Offensive overview

The first year with quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen running the offense should go smoother than most new starters’. Why? Van Tubbergen started six games last season in place of the injured Alex Carder. The new offense Fleck is installing may require some tricky adjustments early on, but Van Tubbergen will have all the weapons he needs in wideout Jamie Wilson (the MAC freshman of the year in 2012) and 5-foot-5 senior back Dareyon Chance to engineer a smooth offensive transition. The Broncos have averaged more than 30 points per game two out of the last three seasons, dipping to 29.3 last season, but should have little trouble bursting through that mark this season.

Defensive overview

Major scheme changes for Western Michigan aren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball. New coordinator Ed Pinkham is scrapping the Broncos’ 3-3-5 in favor of a 4-3, and he has the players to make it churn right away. Most of WMU’s defensive playmakers will return this season, including Johnnie Simon, who posted 103 tackled at safety last season but will move to linebacker in 2013. There is little turnover in the secondary, the linebacking is experienced if not deep, and the line is fronted by senior Travonte Boles, who recorded 9.5 tackles for loss in 11 starts last season.

Three players to know

Tyler Van Tubbergen, QBAs Carder grew into one of the MAC’s most prolific quarterbacks of the past four years, Van Tubbergen watched from the sidelines. Now he gets his chance to become a full-time starter, and should make the most of his opportunity from week 1 on.

Jamie Wilson, WR – Topping his breakout freshman campaign (67 receptions, 792 yards, six touchdowns) won’t be easy, but Wilson, who was also recognized as an All American by FWAA for his punt-returning abilities, has all the physical skills to become a more complete receiver in 2013.

Johnnie Simon, LB – Questions about this linebacking corps’ depth are warranted. Simon flying around the field, providing run support at the line of scrimmage and recording another 100-tackle season are near certainties. A new formation on defense, wherein Simon should lineup closer to the box more often than not, should help Simon become an even more impactful every-down player. 

Behind enemy lines: MLive media group writer David Drew (@Drew_on_WMU), on what to expect from the Broncos this season:

"Western Michigan will look much different this season. New head coach P.J. Fleck and staff have installed an offense that is believed to be similar to the Green Bay Packers and the defense will be a 4-3 system. Senior quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen proved last year he can win games when he filled in for now graduated Alex Carder. Sophomore receiver Jamie Wilson is a playmaking threat every down. The Broncos have some depth issues on defense, especially in the front seven. That depth will be put to the test with three Big Ten opponents on the schedule. Look for freshmen to play, possibly regularly, this season on defense. Win-loss expectations aren’t high for WMU this season, but 6-6 and a bowl appearance aren’t out of the question."

Final thoughts

Anytime you hear someone (fans of a big major conference school, in particular) talk about MAC football, they usually use the term “MACTION,” and then make some snide remark about the quality of play within the league. I’m going to be honest, I don’t watch a ton of MAC football, but I have watched Western Michigan play a few times over the years, and with Cubit at the helm at least, this team almost always managed to keep me entertained for an entire three-hour TV time slot. They put up points in a hurry, spread it around and usually seem to baffle even favored BCS opponents early in games. The Wildcats will need to be ready.