1. P.J. Fleck is a character but he's also a successful football coach and recruiter. Why has he resonated so well with recruits and what has he brought to that Western Michigan program that former Illini interim coach Bill Cubit did not? Also, will Fleck still be coaching in Kalamazoo next year?
I think you kind of hit the nail on the head. Fleck is definitely a character and his mantras and attitude may rub some people the wrong way, but he is always true to who he is and that has been a big hit in recruiting. When I’ve talked to players, both in high school and in college, Fleck’s energy is something that always comes up. Somehow, I’m sure he could make watching grass grow interesting. I think that has been the biggest thing for Fleck and recruiting because when he got to Western Michigan, he did not have much to sell. It was his energy, his passion and his vision for the Broncos. Once he got the ball rolling, he’s been able to build off the basics with success. I was not around when Cubit was at Western Michigan so I can’t personally speak to how the program was with him leading the way, but I know Fleck has made a big point to recruit closer to home. A few months ago, I didn’t think Fleck would be in Kalamazoo at the start of next year. All the pieces seemed to be in place for him to have a special season and land a bigger job. Signs still point to Western Michigan having a great year – only boosting Fleck’s stock – but I think Fleck is more interested in landing the “right” job, more than just a bigger job with a bigger salary. I think he stays with the Broncos for at least another year, but that’s just a gut call.
2. The Broncos are the favorite to win the MAC, and their offense is the main reason. What makes this offense so dangerous and who are the players to watch on that side of the ball?
Western Michigan’s offense was special last year and the Broncos might be even better this year. Quarterback Zach Terrell is an efficient passer and he rarely gets rattled. The Broncos also have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Corey Davis and most teams decide to double him with a corner and safety help over the top. If that’s the case, the Broncos have plenty of other options on offense. Wide receivers Carrington Thompson and Michael Henry are still coming in to their roles, but the talent is there. Running backs Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin are the last two winners of the MAC Freshman of the Year award and they’re a handful in the backfield. Add in LeVante Bellamy and Dee Eskridge, both of who could line up anywhere on the field, and there are plenty of weapons for Western Michigan. That’s not even getting into the Broncos’ offensive line, which returns four starters from last year.
3. The defense seemed to take a few steps last season. How has the defense progressed, what is its identity and who are the playmakers to watch?
Fleck has often said he believes it is harder to play defense in college as a younger player than it is on offense. As a result, the defense is usually a year behind the offense and in a lot of ways it makes sense. Western Michigan is finally getting more depth on the defensive side of the ball and the Broncos defense has taken a few steps forward this season. There are a couple reasons why, but still a few question marks. New defensive line coach Jimmy Williams has made an immediate impact with the Broncos’ front four. They’re stronger, more physical and better disciplined. Asantay Brown, who earned All-MAC honors at safety last season, has made the transition at linebacker and he appears to be thriving in the new position. There’s likely going to be some growing pains at some point, but Brown and Robert Spillane have been solid at linebacker. The biggest question is the secondary. Darius Phillips is a stud, but redshirt freshmen have started in the other three spots.
4. What did Western Michigan do well against Northwestern that could translate to Saturday's game against Illinois?
Western Michigan won the battle in the trenches against Northwestern and I truly think the Broncos’ success on the offensive line could really determine the outcome of Saturday’s game. Western Michigan controlled the tempo and dominated the time of possession against the Wildcats, 39:04 to 20:56. The Broncos are going to have to do the same against Illinois and it starts with the guys up front. Right tackle Taylor Moton has shined early in the year and Chukwuma Okorafor is coming along at left tackle. Sophomore John Keenoy, who started as a freshman last year, has taken massive strides this year, too. If the Broncos can open up holes on the line, Bogan and Franklin will not have any issues gaining solid chunks of yards, which will only eat away at the clock and keep Western Michigan’s defense fresh.
5. What does this game mean for Fleck (an Illinois native) and the program? Also, what's your score prediction?
Fleck will likely mention this game is just another one on the Broncos’ schedule, but it’s a big one for him, the Chicago natives on the roster and the Western Michigan program. After the win over Northwestern, Oak Park, Ill., Robert Spillane mentioned it was “really good to come back and show Northwestern (some) Bronco football." There’s no doubt they’ll have the same feeling going against Illinois. Also, Fleck and the Broncos entered the season with a ton of hype and they seemingly answered their first test with a win over Northwestern. A week later, that win doesn’t look as good to some people given the Wildcats’ performance against Illinois State.
Overall, the MAC has had some success against the Big Ten, but it is not often that a MAC team wins two games against Big Ten foes. Since 2003, I believe only Northern Illinois (2013) and Bowling Green (2015) have accomplished that feat. A win over Illinois would mean more validation for Western Michigan. Fleck has also made a point to recruit Illinois more since taking over and a win would obviously be a boost in recruiting. Alright, enough with that…
Western Michigan fans have high expectations of a win. I didn’t think the Broncos would beat Northwestern and I think Illinois will be tougher than many expect. The line, which opened with Illinois as a 1-point favorite, now has the Broncos by 3. That scares me because I think many are underselling Illinois, but there seems to be something special about this year’s Western Michigan team. I think the Broncos win in a close one, 34-31.