I can tell you that a galloping equine changes to a much slower gait when it tosses a shoe. The possibility of the Broncos entering Saturday's game minus two offensive stars and one defensive standout is equivalent to a missing or at least a loose shoe. Tight end tight end Branden Ledbetter, WR Schneider Julien, and CB Londen Fryar are the Broncos in question. Ledbetter suffered what's being called an "abdominal injury" while being hit in the second quarter of Saturday's 23-17 win over Illinois.
He "won't be back" in time to play against the Rockets, WMU coach Bill Cubit said. Cubit added that he isn't sure if Ledbetter will be ready for the regular-season finale Nov. 25 at Ball State.
Julien, also injured in the Illinois game, has a banged up shoulder that he believed "popped out" temporarily after he stiff-armed a defender. Cubit called Julien doubtful for Saturday, but added, "He thinks he's going to play."
Fryar, who saw limited duty against the Illini after hopping off the field with a toe injury, is questionable. "You don't know how that's (toe injury) going to respond," Cubit said.
That said, the Broncos possess a potent offense. This may be the main reason, despite injuries to key players, WMU is a 15.5 to 16 point favorite.
It all starts with outstanding QB Tim Hiller. Hiller is making quite a case for MAC Player of the Year honors. He is currently ranked 5th in the country in total passing yardage, 14th in passing efficiency , 6th in passing yards per game, 9th in total offense averaging 317 yards per game, and he ranks third in the nation in passes thrown. Completing 68.69 percent of his throws, Hiller has connected on 30 TDs passes.
If there is a knock on Hiller it is that he's not mobile. Early predictions, with WMU having to replace three starters on the offensive line, thought Hiller would have less time forcing him into bad throws. Not only do his stats belie this worry about the WMU OL, read what Illinois Ron Zook said after last Saturday's game.
"We said it all along, he's a great player, he's an NFL player. He's got unbelievable accuracy. Can't get to him because he gets rid of the ball so well." -- RON ZOOK, Illinois head coach, about WMU junior quarterback Tim Hiller
And who does he get rid to the ball to? That would be All MAC WR Jamarko Simmons. Simmons ranks third in the nation in receptions per game with 8.4 catches per game and 100.4 yards per game putting him ninth in receiving yards per game and 8th in total receiving yards. In the latter category Stephen Williams ranks #62 and Nick Moore is #76. Simmons had 11 receptions for a career-high 174 yards in WMU's 23-17 win over Illinois. He broke the WMU career receptions record held by Greg Jennings, now a standout WR for the Green Bay Packers. Simmons also became the first Bronco with 1,000 yards (1,004 yards) receiving in a season since Jennings. With WR Schneider Julien doubtful, there may be more pressure on Simmons and Hiller since Julien is second on the team with 51 catches (11.7 yards per catch) and four TDs. Good news for Broncos fans, WR Juan Nunez, who suffered a concussion against Eastern Michigan, is likely to play. Nunez is third in total receptions with 48 (11.6 ypc) and five TDs. Some believe he's the team's best deep threat.
"It's a good possibility," Cubit said of Nunez's return. "We've done all the tests. We're just making sure running around (during practice) doesn't hurt him." Missing TE Ledbetter and RB West would have an impact as together they have caught 75 passes, nine for TDs, for a total of 699 yards.
The Broncos' running game pails by comparison to Hiller's aerial assault, averaging 117.5 yards per game on the ground (91st in NCAA.) RB Brandon West handles virtually all of the work with 170 carries for 909 yards (5.1 ypc). If West is not healthy, Freshman Aaron Winchester will carry the ball – 25 rushes for 79 yards. Senior RB Kirk Elsworth, the lead blocker in WMU running attack, has 64 yards on 11 carries but has had fumblitis.
Brandon West's value goes way beyond his running back chores. He currently ranks fifth in the NCAA in all-purpose running which includes, rushes, receiving, and kick-off returns. He doesn't return punts nor do windows. A familiar name to Rocket fans, T.Y. Hilton of Florida International ranks number one in the nation in this category.
In the Red Zone Hiller has passed for TDs 21 times with seven scores coming on the ground. WMU has 216 points vs. 120 points for the Rockets in the Red Zone. WMU has 227 first downs vs. 162 for the Rockets.
If there is a standout weak spot for the Broncos it is their punting game. Sophomore P Tim Balice is netting only 33.22 yards per punt placing WMU 104th in NCAA rankings. By comparison, the Rockets are 61st at 35.08 ypp. The Broncos are next to last (#118) in punt return coverage allowing 17.17 yards per punt return on 12 returns. The Rockets are only allowing 7.5 yards per punt return on eight returns.
WMU has returned 23 punts (7 yards per return) while UT has a whopping seven punts returns year to date for a 5.86 yards per return.
K John Potter is 10 for 13 on field goals. He is seven for his last eight attempts missing only from 52 yards out.
Brandon West is returning kick-offs 22.35 per return. That compares to the Rockets and their return average of 21.18 yards. Kickoff return coverage, however, favors the Broncos as they are 10th best allowing only 18.35 yards per return. Compare the Rockets at 108th standing with 25.56 yards per return.
Ten starters returned making this an experienced group. The defense may have had their strongest game last Saturday when they forced two interceptions and constantly harassed Illinois star QB Juice Williams. The Broncos leader on D is DB Louis Delmas. He is now the 39th leading tackler in NCAA with 87 total tackles and the team leader in solo tackles with 47.
In terms to total team defense, however, the Broncos are ranked 86th, six positions lower than the Rockets. They are giving up 387.4 yards per game compared to UT's 377.89.
Scoring defense is a different story. WMU is 50th in scoring defense allowing 22.4 points per game. The Rockets are near the bottom ranking #102 giving up 33.1 points per game.
Broncos are allowing 136.7 yards per game rushing compared to 180.6 for the Rockets. Through the air WMU is allowing 250.70 yards per game (#100 in the nation) compared with 197.33 for the Rockets.
Turnover margin are negative for both teams -.33 for the Rockets and -.10 for the Broncos. WMU has 12 INT versus 6 for the Rockets. The Broncos have lost12 fumbles with the Rockets giving up the ball nine times. Both teams have thrown 5 INTs.
Pass defense efficiency finds the Rockets near the bottom ranked #109th while the Broncos are 55th in the same category.
Both teams are averaging about 50 yards per game in penalties.
The Broncos have sacked opposing QBs 21 times versus eight for UT - only one better than the three lowest ranked teams. Tackles for losses favors WMU, 77 TFL for the Broncos vs. 45 for the Rockets.
Rockets are giving up 1.11 sacks per game. Broncos have a similar stat allowing Hiller to be sacked 1.33 times per game.
What to Look For:
30,000 seat Waldo Stadium to be at or near capacity
Brandon West, if he plays, to be held below 100 yards rushing
West to have at least one kick-off return to WMU 40 yard line or beyond
Rockets to finally generate a running game
Big days for Simmons, Moore and Williams
Nick Moore to return a punt for more than ten yards
Kenny Stafford to score another TD
Weather to be a factor with snow showers during the game preceded by thunderstorms Friday resulting in dropped passes and fumbles
Cold weather in the face will energize the Rockets and they will cover the line
The Broncos are looking to go undefeated at home. With a large senior class being honored don't look for them to overlook the Rockets.