Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.
Western Michigan is coming off a season in which they finished 9-4 after being blown out by Rice in the Texas Bowl. The Broncos losses all came on the road at Central Michigan, Nebraska, and at the time, an undefeated 11-0 Ball State Cardinal team that ranked 15th in the nation. Some notable wins include winning at Buffalo against the Mid American Conference Champions and beating Illinois 23-17. Yes, the same Fighting Illini that a month earlier beat Michigan at the Big House 45-20. It's well documented that Illinois had an up and down year, but you can't really discredit the Broncos win to a "once in a decade" win.
Western Michigan has defeated a BCS team in each of the last three years, all on the road and is seeking Michigan to make it number four. The Broncos won at Virginia in '06, at Iowa in '07 and Illinois at Ford Field in Detroit.
Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez isn't taking Western lightly this week.
"We're playing a veteran quarterback, a veteran ball club, and we know we're going to get their best shot. Our guys are excited and they know the challenge Western has. They've seen the film and they've talked about it all week."
The one name from Western Michigan you may have heard of is returning Senior Quarterback Tim Hiller (#3). He will be the best QB on the field, Saturday. He's probably the MAC's number two signal caller behind Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan. In '08, Hiller threw for a Western single season record 3,725 yards, completing 64.9% of his passes and tossed 36 touchdown passes. Those are spectacular numbers, and he did some of those games with a torn ACL. If Hiller throws for TD's even remotely close to last year's numbers, then he'll have the MAC record, held by Chad Pennington. By now, you should hope he lost everyone around him for '09 but sadly this isn't the case.
Brandon West / Getty Images
The Broncos return all but one their starting lineman. They could have one of the top lines in the MAC. The Broncos also return their 1,000 yard rusher in Senior Running Back Brandon West (#2). West averaged five yards per carry and his rushing totals would be higher if he played in the Toledo game. Overall, Western's top three rushers return. Aaron Winchester (#23) is a much smaller compact back that can bounce off people if you're lucky to see him. Combine that with a line that shouldn't have any chemistry issues and this offense should be able to feature a two-dimensional attack that is so important to a successful offense.
The team will lose three of their top four receivers and miss their top two pass catchers. Jamarko Simmons and Schneider Julien combined for 1988 yards in '08. Junior Juan Nunez (#81) returns for the Broncos. He had seven touchdowns and 701 receiving yards. If there is a weakness in this offense, it's a lack of proven receivers that Hiller can throw to. At least two freshmen will be seeing playtime at this position.
Steve Morrison / Getty Images
Defensively, Western has a lot of holes to fill. They return just four starters and must replace their entire secondary. Clearly, this will be a tough and arduous task for Defensive Coordinator and former Wolverine Linebacker Steve Morrison.
Their best player is Senior Linebacker Austin Pritchard (#35). A first team Conference player last season, Pritchard had 86 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
On the line, Defensive End, Senior Defense End Justin Braska (#48) has the ability to make plays off the edge while Senior Defensive Tackle Cody Cielenski (#68) is the one true heavyweight at 280 lbs.
A piece of hope the Broncos are counting on Doug Wiggins (#1). The Miami U. transfer was a highly recruited player by many of the top schools, including Michigan. Wiggins had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Outlook and Strategy
Tim Hiller / Getty Images
It has been very rare to see a team perform at high gear in a team's season opener. That goes for teams at the bottom of the ladder all the way to a National Championship Contender. Only Appalachian State's offense in the first half against Michigan in 2007 ever looked so sharp and precise. That being said, the Broncos offense is going to look very good at times. Having seniors at QB, RB, and a veteran O-Line, it should yield great chemistry and balance. Hiller's challenge will be two-fold: 1) To make sure that he and his new receivers can trust one another, and 2) pass the mental tests that Michigan's new defense is going to throw at him and the rest of the Broncos.
There may be some cat and mouse games early as Western will wait to see what impact Michigan's new hybrid players will throw at them. With Brandon Herron (#35) and Steve Brown (#3) giving them different looks by their alignment and assignment, the Broncos in the 2nd half may try to exploit any perceived weakness in size up front, and pursuit in the middle.
Western Michigan was searching for an answer at Right Tackle. If Michigan can exploit that, it could take Hiller out of his comfort zone. However, this week's depth chart revealed that Left Guard Phillip Swanson (#65) has moved to RT and Red-shirt freshman Sam Jaeger (#64) is projected to start at LG. Mr. Jaeger, meet Mr. Mike Martin (#68) of Michigan.
Though the Broncos bring offensive experience to the field, Michigan does not. The Wolverines will have an edge in that, for the Broncos, it will be a mystery as to what to prepare for. The trade off is the Wolverines will have more missed assignments on defense than Western has on offense. For Michigan, being that it's the first game, plus implementing a new scheme, the Wolverines are likely to have more growing pains than the Broncos.
Bill Cubit / Mark Bialek, Associated Press
With Michigan implementing a different offense and with a lot of new personnel, and Western implementing even more new faces in their defense, expect to see some explosive plays offensively from both teams. Coach Rich Rodriguez's offense should expose some of the talent and speed deficiencies Western may have. Remember the purpose of the spread is to put fast and talented players in space against a single defender. Make that defender miss and you have a big play. That's Head Coach Bill Cubit's biggest trepidation.
"That worries me…Gotta a lot of kids that haven't played before. We're going to be counting on those guys there. That's my biggest fear."
Coach Rodriguez reiterated that all three of his quarterbacks are likely to play Saturday, which means Western will have to prepare for three different styles. Cubit knows what he would do if he was at Michigan.
"If I'm going to play three of them, I'm going to make sure I get the four or five best plays for each one of those guys. We think we got a fairly good handle on that."
The Broncos will have to play disciplined defense with many inexperienced players. Cubit may be more focused about the running game.
"We are concerned about the run game…coming out and pounding us."
Meanwhile, the Broncos experience on offense will be more than capable of putting points on the board. Offensively, look for Western to try to run and pass equally, and similar to what the Wolverines did under Mike DeBord, watch for them to throw some short passes to win the time-of-possession battle and utilize West more as a receiver on these short plays. If successful, then watch for Hiller to go long to Nunez after the safeties feel compelled to cheat-in for run support. Western also has a bit of a reputation to throw in some different plays that haven't been scouted early in a ball game to throw a team off rhythm early.
I find it laughable this week at the number of experts who feel that there is no way Michigan can lose to Western. They consider it so incredulous to losing to an in-state MAC school that there is no way for the coaching staff to recover. In their next breath, they go on to talk about how great Western's offense is and how poor Michigan's defense was in 2008. Then they cite that Michigan have depth problems on defense. The concerns are valid, but Western isn't Toledo, they're projected to be one of the top teams in the MAC. You can't write or talk about how good Western is and then follow up how the embarrassment of losing to them isn't recoverable. It doesn't make sense.
I expect both teams score often with each getting into the 20's on missed assignments and broken plays. I believe the Wolverines will put the week of distractions behind them and be "all in" focusing instead on making a statement. ENJOY THE GAME!