Broncos Bound Into Glass Bowl

Tom Mauter's "My View" column sees a crossroads in Toledo's next matchup against the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday night in the Glass Bowl. It is homecoming week for Toledo, and the Rockets have a two game winning streak on the line. More importantly, Toledo is above .500 now for the season at 3-2 and undefeated in the MAC at 1-0. Read on for Tom's view.

Standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by
And I'm staying at the crossroads, believe I'm sinking down.

Crossroads, written by Robert Johnson


Standing at the crossroads of the MAC West title hunt, Western Michigan (2-3, 1-1) and Toledo (3-2, 1-0) square off this Saturday evening in the Glass Bowl. It is a pivotal game for both teams, but there is a bit more pressure on the Broncos. To this point, this is not the WMU team the prognosticators saw as a possible MAC West title contender. A predicted balanced run and pass offense buffered by a better than average MAC defense has yet to be on display in Kalamazoo. The Broncos are struggling with their rushing attack and their run defense has been abused by opponents for the most part.

On Offense
As goes Tim Hiller so go the Broncos. One of the MAC's best QBs, Hiller has completed 63.3% of his passes through the first five games with 8 TDs and 7 INTs. Three of the interceptions were last Saturday against NIU. In his amazing career Hiller has never completed less than 63% of his passes in any season. His senior season has been mostly an uphill battle, continually being pressured and having his receiving corps performing at below recent WMU standards.

The offensive line looked to be in fine shape coming into the fall. It is led by all-MAC right tackle Phillip "DJ Heavy Set" Swanson (6'4", 307#) and heralded sophomore left tackle Anthony Parker (6'5", 305#). Right guard Nick Clemons (6'5", 308#) and the center combination of Paul Wasikowski (6'3", 291#) and Nick Mitchell (6'1", 290#) all have starting experience. Starting center Nick Mitchell didn't play against NIU because of a banged-up knee but he will be in the lineup at the Glass Bowl. Redshirt freshman Sam Jaeger (6'5", 323#) starts at left guard. This group has yet to deliver on consistently opening holes for the RBs, and have given up eight sacks and an equal number of QB hurries.

Even more telling is what Broncos head coach Bill Cubit said following the NIU game: "It's the same thing every week. The guy's [Hiller] back there and he has pressure in his face." Fan and media sentiment agree that the WMU OL is too slow in pass protection.

The top running backs, Brandon West (5'10", 188#) and Aaron "Rifleman" Winchester (5'9", 190#), have combined for 90 yards rushing per game and three of the Broncos four rushing TDs. On a national scale, WMU Rushing ranks just 107th.

The WRs are running poor routes and not breaking tackles with the WR screens going for only two or three yards at best. Coach Cubit is not pleased with this group stating "Our wide outs didn't play real fast again today (last Saturday)."

WR Juan Nunez (6'0", 172#) is second on the team with 23 receptions and first in receiving yardage with 341 yards and three receiving TDs. Nunez, the Broncos best deep threat, missed the NIU game with a bruised left knee. He will be on the field against the Rockets.

The TEs have 8 total receptions for 42 yards and two TDs. Still, the WMU passing game ranks 25th averaging 252.6 ypg.

On Defense
With the loss of all four starters from last year's excellent secondary, three of whom were 2008 all-MAC performers, a drop off was expected. This group, currently ranked 83rd in the nation, and is allowing 213.6 ypg. It is led by touted safety and nickel back Doug Wiggins (6'0", 180#). Wiggins missed his second game (NIU) for violating team rules, a suspension stemming from a pending misdemeanor assault and battery charge. Based on the severity of the incident, "he's served his punishment," Cubit said. Wiggins returns to the Broncos lineup Saturday.

Collectively, the Bronco secondary has accounted for both of the team's two interceptions. More telling is that three of the top four tacklers are out of the secondary.

The heart and soul of the Broncos defense is the outstanding strong side linebacker and first-team all-MAC senior LB Austin Pritchard (6'4", 235#). His 38 solo tackles are second most in the country. He's led WMU in tackles in all five games and his 50 total stops (3 1/2 for loss) are almost double anyone else on the team. Pritchard's play has twice earned him Mid-American Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Week.

His supporting cast is another story. Freshmen middle linebacker Wood Legrier and weakside backer and redshirt freshman Chris Prom are often out of position. Pritchard spends his time between plays telling his defensive mates what they've done wrong. These conversations are too frequent for he and Coach Cubit's liking.

On Special Teams
Kicker John Potter is averaging 63.3 yards on kick-offs with nearly a third going for touchbacks. Bronco coverage has been very good holding opponents to an average of less than 20 yards per kick-off return. On field goals Potter is only three for five, missing both attempts beyond 40 yards.
BR> Punter Ben Armer is averaging a solid 39.3 yards per punt, with three of his 24 punts travelling more than 50 yards. Nearly half of his kicks have been inside the twenty yard line.

Brandon West handles the bulk of kick-off returns average 26.1 ypr with a long of 43 yards. Jordan White has emerged as the punt returner, averaging 16.1 yards per return with a long of 40 yards.

What to Look For
Look for Hiller to target the TE's inside the Rocket 10 yard line.

The Rockets kick-off return team play has been improving. Look for a Rocket return to be better than 23 yards, the longest allowed so far by the Broncos.

A fake field goal attempt. If the Broncos line up to kick a field goal of 40-plus yards look for holder WR Robert Arnheim to throw a pass, probably to John Potter.

Eric Page to have at least one punt return of double-digit yardage.

At least one INT by the Rocket defense.

The Rockets in the Bronco backfield all night, chasing Hiller and keeping him to less than 260 yards passing.

The Rockets to return to a more balanced offense with a total of net rushing yards in triple digits.

The Broncos running game to falter after the mid-point of the second quarter.

Fewer Rocket penalties . . . PLEASE.


Summary
Listening to the coaches, players, and Kalamazoo press, WMU isn't mentally or physically tough enough. "We're pretty much at a crossroads," right tackle Phil Swanson said. "You either decide you go left or right. There is no middle, no gray area. You decide to do things the right way, or you can stray off and you go 3-9 the rest of the season." Per coach Cubit, "It doesn't mean it can't change ... but it's going to have to be a lot of people that are making the change." Crossroads of a season indeed.

The Rockets are an early 7 to 8 point favorite.


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