The 2016 college football season is finally ready to begin. After months of having nothing to do on Saturday afternoons, a nation suddenly breathes back to life ready for some football. While there are some major marquee games week one, such as No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston and No. 20 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, the Wildcats welcome a MAC team to Ryan Field.
The Western Michigan Broncos may not be a Power 5 team, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked, especially since Northwestern has had trouble against MAC teams the past few years. The Wildcats beat Western Michigan back in 2013, but they’ll face a much improved squad this time around. The Broncos have a legit offense that will put up points, and in all likelihood they’ll give Northwestern its money’s worth.
Here are three things to know about Northwestern’s opening week opponent:
1. P.J. Fleck is a magician
When P.J. Fleck took over as head coach in 2013, Western Michigan was in a strange place. They had seen some success under former head coach Bill Cubit, going to three bowl games, but Cubit was fired after a 4-8 season in 2012. A 32-year-old P.J. Fleck took over the team and promptly went 1-11. However, Fleck hit the recruiting trail hard and has been able to get the best talent in the MAC by a wide margin. It’s at the point now where he’s basically running recruiting circles around the rest of the conference. He followed up his disastrous first year with back to back 8-5 seasons and the school’s first ever bowl win in 2015.
Fleck has made a name for himself with his “Row The Boat” moniker and his all around charisma. Just a few weeks ago, Fleck attended Western Michigan practice in full pads and took on his players. In just a few short years, Fleck has become one of the hottest names in coaching, and he will look to keep that momentum going in 2016.
2. A potent spread offense
Western Michigan’s offense isn’t anything special. It’s just really good. In 2015, the Broncos averaged 36 points per game and had the 17th-best offense in the nation by yards per game. Unlike Northwestern, the Broncos run a true spread offense, led by quarterback Zach Terrell. The 6-foot-2 senior can make all the throws, and he is accurate too. In 2015, he threw for 3526 yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and completed 67 percent of his passes. He can move as well: he ran for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. Wide receiver isn’t the deepest position for the Broncos, but they have an absolute beast in Corey Davis. Coming in at 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Davis was targeted 140 times last season. He finished the year with 91 catches for 1446 yards and 12 touchdowns. Against Michigan St., Davis had 10 receptions for 154 yards and a score. He can light up any defense.
Don’t think that Western Michigan’s offense is one dimensional though—its rushing attack was top-30 in the nation last year, and the Broncos have a three-headed monster at running back. Leading the pack is sophomore Jamauri Bogan, who ran for 1051 yards and 16 touchdowns AS A FRESHMAN. Then there’s junior Jarvion Franklin, who had 735 yards and 5 touchdowns, and LeVante Bellamy, who had 493 yards and 2 touchdowns. All of them have big play ability, but Bogan is the guy to watch out for as he looks to improve in his second year of MACtion.
The Broncos have the talent on offense to give Northwestern some trouble, and it all comes together perfectly in Kirk Ciarrocca’s spread offense. It’s nothing special on paper—the Broncos call passing and running plays right around the league average—but it’s the perfect system for the players involved. The Broncos also don’t ever let up on the throttle. Even when they were up big last season, they continued to pass the ball. It’s this potent offense that will prove to be Northwestern’s biggest challenge on Sunday.
3. Weak up front
While the offense may be Western Michigan’s strength, the Broncos are incredibly weak up front, on both sides of the ball. On offense, the entire unit’s one weakness is the offensive line. In 2015, Terrell was sacked a whopping 31 times, good for 15th-most in the nation. That may actually make their offensive accomplishments all the more impressive, but the Broncos can still be exploited up front. They bring back four of five starters on the line, which is always good, but they lose their best lineman, left tackle Willie Beavers. Beavers was first team All-MAC last year and will be sorely missed. The offensive line shouldn’t be as bad as it was last year, but it should still be an opportunity for Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington to start off the season on the right foot.
On defense, it’s much of the same. The Broncos’ defense isn’t great to begin with, but it’s particularly weak up front. The team’s best pass rusher, Keion Adams, returns. He had 10.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2015. However, DE Jarrell McKinney and DT Cleveland Smith are gone. The duo combined for 48.5 tackles, 11.5 tockles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2015. There’s a decent chunk of players that saw time last year and they will rotate in to fill the gaps but this is by no means a strength of the team. On both sides of the ball, Western Michigan is weak up front. Northwestern should have a decided advantage at this critical juncture on both sides of the ball.