Every week during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.
The season-opener pits the Northwestern Wildcats against the Western Michigan Broncos. To help preview the team from Kalamazoo, we talked with Brandon Fitzsimons of Hustle Belt, the MAC SB Nation site.
Inside NU: Let's start with quarterback Zach Terrell. What does he do so well to make this spread offense go, and what can Northwestern do to stop—or at least limit—him?
Brandon Fitzsimons: Terrell is very efficient. His completion percentages the past two seasons have been in the high 60's, which is pretty solid. He also doesn't throw many interceptions. However, to get these stats, he's been known to take a few sacks, which is a problem whenever you take a MAC line and put them against a B1G line. That said, the best shot is jam coverage at the line and blitz packages up the wahzoo. If the Wildcats can pressure Terrell and take away his quick options, he might fold a couple times to the tune of critical 3rd down stops and turnovers. That said, he's a redshirt senior now, so his progressions should be even sharper this season. Only time can tell if he can take that next step.
INU: Northwestern struggled with a big, talented MAC receiver last year in Ball State's Jordan Williams. Now, they open with Corey Davis. What makes him so good, and what type of numbers should be expect from him in this game?
BF: Davis is so good because he is just so athletic. He has some size, but nothing to brag about. He compensates by having good leaping ability, great hands, and incredible speed and agility. He's also fairly strong, so he can battle in traffic for balls, which only makes him that much more scary to defend. Without Daniel Braverman (now with the Bears) to help take some focus off him in coverage, Davis will undoubtedly face a tough task early on as teams key in on him until the new WR2 establishes himself. He still should be able to put up another 100 yard game on 7-8 catches and a score, but I have a hard time seeing him do much else given the ambiguity at the second WR position.
INU: Defense was the weak point of this team, and there are some big losses up front. Who can we expect to make an impact in the front seven?
BF: The linebacking crew of Caleb Bailey, Robert Spillane, and Asantay Brown should be rock solid. Brown moves from safety to the box after having a stellar season in the secondary, and Bailey and Spillane are both solid returnees from last year, when injuries took a toll on the position. As for the line, it's tough. Keion Adams should be pretty good, but almost everyone else is a huge question mark. Given Fleck's recruiting prowess, there shouldn't be too much of a drop-off, but the D-Line position really hasn't been good in years. It's improving, but still the biggest hole on the team.
INU: Last year, WMU started 1-3 before reeling off five straight wins. They then ended the year 2-2, including a bowl win. What was different about the team during that 5-0 mid-season stretch?
BF: The schedule. It's really easy to say, but when you look at it, it's just laughable. The Broncos started against Michigan State (at home) and trips to Georgia Southern and Ohio State. That's a tough schedule for anyone, not matter the conference. Once WMU hit MAC play, here were their opponents: Central Michigan (close rivalry game), @ Ohio, Miami (not the Florida one), @ Eastern Michigan, Ball State. The last three of those teams were hot garbage, the first two ended up going to bowl games and each beat eventual MAC West Champ NIU. The end of the schedule (vs BGSU, @ NIU, @ #24 Toledo) was rough, but getting the Toledo win, followed by the bowl win, were really good positives going forward.
Also, the team just looked better. The run game was working, the pass game wasn't needed as much, and the Broncos just dominated opponents with time of possession over that stretch. They held the ball for the last 8+ minutes against CMU, had a 400-yard rushing game against Ohio, and just smashed the three weaker opponents on principal. Bowling Green was just that good, and I don't want to talk about NIU anymore. Let's move on.
INU: PJ Fleck has done an unbelievable job turning the WMU program around. What has made him so effective in Kalamazoo?
BF: His charisma. He recruits like there's no tomorrow, he gets all of his players to buy into his vision, and he has a solid coaching group around him to help pick up the slack. He is getting the athletes that should dominate in the MAC, and has slowly worked up towards getting that MAC Championship (something WMU hasn't won in my lifetime). He can get annoying at times, but the results don't lie. He has led the Broncos to their only bowl win ever, their only Top 25 win ever, and has back-to-back 8-win seasons for a program that has never won more than 9. He just gets everyone to buy in, and then goes.
INU: Prediction time: Who do you have winning on Saturday and why?
BF: I have Northwestern winning, but in a great game. This is the toughest test for the Broncos, partly because Northwestern is arguably (or not arguably) the best opponent on their 2016 schedule, and partly because it's the first game of the year. The questions around the D-Line and WR2 are worrisome for a program that badly needs balance on both sides of the ball. Additionally, the secondary must replace their shutdown corner and "everywhere" safety after graduation and position change, respectively. Darius Phillips is fast, but known to get beat often. Hopefully this off-season fixed that. Nevertheless, the Broncos don't truly get their ground game going against a solid Northwestern front 7, and Corey Davis is held in check juuuuuuuuuuuust enough for the Wildcats to squeak out a 31-27 victory.
Thanks to Brandon for his help. Make sure to head over to Hustle Belt to check out our Q&A with them as well.