Making the Grade

Heading into Saturday's game at Waldo Stadium, the Western Michigan University Broncos football team has already had their share of ups and downs. The season so far has been one of learning, growing, mistakes and successes. For a team that only won one game last season and last won a game against another D-IA program in 2003 they have made the most of the positive breaks they have received.

The Broncos dropped their season opener to Virginia 19-31. A game that saw the Broncos trail by only five with just over 5 minutes left in the contest. Virginia is currently ranked in the top 20 in most of the collegiate polls. In that game Bronco fans saw a young team (comprised of mainly underclassmen), play a full 60 minutes of football, something that had been missing for quite a while.

The following week the Broncos saw the return of senior quarterback Ryan Cubit as the team took on Toledo in the Glass Bowl. The rust was evident through most of the first half as the Broncos were outscored 35-6 heading into the locker room before losing 56-23.

After starting the season with two road losses the Broncos returned home to Waldo Stadium where they played host to the then #1 ranked D-IAA Southern Illinois Salukis. With the return of football to Kalamazoo for 2005 the game also marked the return of senior running back Trovon Riley. While SIU fans everywhere expected their team to win the Broncos extended their home opening winning streak to 9 games. The last time the Broncos lost a home opener was in 1996 when they lost to Eastern Illinois 28-20. Against the Salukis the Broncos won 34-28. The game was in doubt until Dustin Duclo recorded his second interception of the game.

With the Broncos 12 game losing streak a thing of the past the Broncos were looking to end a couple of other streaks. The last time a WMU football team posted a win against a D-IA team was in 2003 when the Broncos defeated the Central Michigan Chippewas 44-21 at Waldo Stadium. Also the last time the Broncos won two games in a row was that very same season when they beat Ball State 28-20 the week before beating the Chippewas.

So last weekend the Broncos headed into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to take on the Temple Owls. Temple, currently a Mid-American Conference affiliate member (they will become a football only member in 2007) was looking at the game as their best chance at winning a football game this season. Looking at the way the game started as the Owls jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead before Paul Moersch blocked the PAT attempt and Ameer Ismail returned it 92 yards making the score 6-2. It was the first time in school history a PAT try was returned for 2-points. Temple then went on to take a 13-2 lead before the Broncos offense got going.

The Broncos eventually went ahead 16-13 before Ryan Lux tied the game up with a 26 yard field goal. The score remained 16-16 until the final play of the game. With starting quarterback Ryan Cubit out because of a season and career ending injury that occurred late in the third quarter, senior Robbie Haas led the Broncos on a perfectly executed drive to end the game. Perhaps the biggest play of the game and the one that mattered the most was a 16 yard catch by an alert Tony Scheffler who made sure he was able to go out of bounds at the Temple 20 yard line helped set up Nate Meyer's game winning 33 yard field goal. The victory raised the Broncos record to 2-2. The last time the Broncos were 2-2 was during the 2003 season when they started the season 3-2 before finishing the season 5-7.

Currently the Broncos two-deep roster consists of 10 freshmen, 12 red shirt freshmen and 15 sophomores making this one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams in the country.

With the injury to Cubit, Haas now takes control of the offense. His strengths are his ability to usually make sound decisions with the ball before taking a sack or turning it over, he is able to judge what the defense is giving him and he adjusts his game accordingly and he knows where his safety outlets are. Some of the things that could possibly work against him is can he throw the ball deep? Will the offensive line be able to provide him the pass protection that they provided him against Virginia? Now that teams in the MAC have the chance to see his performance against Virginia how will he be able to adjust to what the defense gives him? All of these questions will soon be answered as the Broncos enter the heart of their MAC schedule.

Cubit and Haas has put the Broncos passing game back on the charts nationally. With an average 245.25 yards per game the Broncos rank 43rd in passing offense.

On the receiving end of most of those yards is the Broncos dual threat of Greg Jennings and Tony Scheffler. Jennings, a 5'11", 192 pound lightning fast receiver has caught 44 passes this season for 416 yards and 3 touchdowns. As the season rolls on, so does his assault on the WMU record book. Against Temple Greg Jennings took over sole possession of first place as the school's all-time leader in touchdown receptions with 28. His 2,696 career yards places him in second place, 903 yards behind Steve Neal (3,599). Jennings would have to average 129 yards a game the rest of the season to catch Neal. Jennings is also 51 catches away from catching Neal (235) as the all-time leader in career receptions. Jennings currently has 184 career receptions. Jennings is currently on a 27-game receptions streak.

Scheffler adds another dimension to the Broncos receiving corps. As a 6'6", 260 pound tight-end, he is perhaps the most versatile athlete on the team. In key running situations he serves as one of the lead blockers and in the passing game there are not too many tight ends in the country that can accomplish what he does. Scheffler earned the John Mackey Tight End of the Week Award after his performance against Temple last weekend and he currently sits in second on the Broncos receiving numbers behind Jennings. Scheffler has caught 16 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. He has been on the John Mackey Tight End of the Year watch list since the season began.

There are not too many weaknesses in the Broncos receiving corps. However with the loss of Cubit will Jennings and Scheffler have to fight for more yards after catch or will Haas be able to mix up the passing game with long and short passes? That is another question that will be answered soon.

The running backs have become one of the Broncos strengths so far this season for first year head coach Bill Cubit. With the return of Trovon Riley, the improved play of Mark Bonds and a capable freshman in Kirk Elsworth the Broncos finally have a way to keep defenses honest. In just two games Riley has gained 247 yards on 57 carries with 1 touchdown, but a fumble late in the game against Temple saw him replaced by Mark Bonds who has 246 yards on 59 carries and the Broncos only other rushing touchdown. Elsworth has 29 yards on 6 carries as a true freshman.

Up front the Broncos offensive line has stood tall most of this young season. However they will be heading into their second game without senior Mark Ottney who is nursing an injury. Despite the loss of Ottney this group of four starting sophomores and one junior will do their best to provide Haas the needed protection to complete passes and to create lanes for Riley, Elsworth and Bonds to run through.

Grading the Broncos offense through the first four games of the season: C+

On defense the Broncos seem to struggle early in games but by the second half they are hard to beat. At Virginia the defense gave up 24 first half points but only 7 in the second half. At Toledo they surrendered 35 points before the Broncos got on the board. The Broncos then outscored Toledo 23-21 the rest of the way. Against Southern Illinois the defense gave up 14 first half points and held the Salukis scoreless until surrendering a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Last weekend they gave up 16 first half points before pitching a second half shutout.

Despite their starting woes the defense has recorded 6 interceptions so far this season red shirt freshman with Dustin Duclo leading the way with two. C.J. Wilson recorded the first interception of the season against Virginia. Wilson returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.

The front four starters heading into Saturday's game include three red shirt freshmen and one junior. Senior nose guard Paul Moersch was injured last weekend at Temple and will back up red shirt freshman Cory Flom. So far this season this group has performed admirably and as those recovering from injuries return they should get stronger.

Three of the teams leading defenders are the trio starting at linebacker. Junior Ameer Ismail leads the team in tackles with 31 (12 solo, 19 assist). Ismail has recorded 2 sacks for 15 yards and 5 ½ tackles for a loss of 26 yards. He returned 1 fumble for 18 yards. Freshman Austin Pritchard has recorded 22 tackles (10 solo, 12 assist) to go with his one sack and 3 tackles for loss as well as a forced fumble. Red shirt freshman Dustin Duclo currently owns 21 tackles (8 solo, 13 assist), one tackle for loss, a team leading two interceptions and a forced fumble. These linebackers show very few if any weaknesses.

In all four games this season the Broncos secondary has allowed a big play early on before settling down and gaining control of the game and so far they have learned from their mistakes and have improved as each game has gone on. With 2 freshmen, a red shirt freshman and a sophomore starting this has been a season of trial by fire. Even though they may give up a big play or two in the beginning of a game, by the end of the game they have more than made up for it. Against Virginia C.J. Wilson made up for a big play by intercepting a Marques Hagans' pass and returning it 55 yards for the Broncos first touchdown of the season. Backup strong safety Scooter McIntosh prevented Temple from scoring a third quarter touchdown when he forced a Jamel Harris fumble on the two-yard line.

Defending the pass has been tough on the Broncos this season due to their youth and inexperience. They have surrendered 1,009 yards through the air and allowed 6 touchdowns. On the ground they have given up 686 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, one could point to the Toledo game as the game that spiked the numbers considering the Broncos gave up 254 rushing yards and 358 yards through the air and 8 touchdowns.

Grading the Broncos defense through the first four games of the season: C-

The most notable improvement this year has been the play of the special teams. Despite no big returns on kickoffs or punts this season the story has been the play of the punt and kick blocking teams as well as the performance of punter Jim Laney and kicker Nate Meyer. Nate Meyer got the special teams off on the right-foot in the first game of the season when he connected on field goals of 42, 40, 31 and 30 yards. In the game against Toledo, Kirk Elsworth penetrated three blockers and blocked a Toledo punt which Jamarko Simmons recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

Punter Jim Laney had a bad game against Virginia but made up for it at Toledo by averaging 43.9 yards a punt including a couple of punts over 50 yards. In the next game against Southern Illinois, Laney recorded punts of 59 and 58 yards while posting a game average of 43 yards per punt.

Last week at Temple the play of the special teams units came together. And it started early when Moersch blocked a PAT kick and Ismail returned it for the Broncos first two points of the game and ended when Meyer connected on the game winning 33-yard field goal. In between the two plays London Fryar downed a punt at the Owls 1-yard line (the third time in 2 games he has down a punt inside an opponents 5-yard line) and Seth Quivey broke through and blocked an Owls punt.

Currently Nate Meyer ranks seventh in the nation in field goals with two made attempts per game. Also, he needs just seven field goals to crack the schools top five in that category for the season. John Creek (1988) and Jay Barresi (1989) are tied for fourth with 15. Mike Prindle holds the record with 24 in 1984.

Grading the Broncos special teams through the first four games of the season: A-

Heading into the season head coach Bill Cubit surrounded himself with a strong supporting cast of coaches that included former Broncos whom he coached back in the late 1990's, former MAC assistant coaches, former Big Ten assistant coaches, former NFL assistant coaches, while retaining long-time Broncos assistant coach Brian Rock. Combined the Broncos coaching staff has 104 years of coaching experience.

Early on they have been able to take a very young and inexperienced group of young student-athletes and turn them into a group of men that will not quit on the football field. Coach Cubit and his assistants are a vocal group. When someone makes a mistake they know about it immediately. When they do well they also know about it. Their work ethic, in practice and in games has been rewarded with playing time.

This year's squad does not start the game with a delay of game penalty or wasting time outs due to wrong personnel. They do not waste time getting plays in. The offense does not spend a lot of time in the huddle. The game plans have been tailored to the ability of the starting quarterback. While there is still a lot of work to do to get the football team back to the top of the MAC, the improvements have been markedly noticeable from the get-go. The Broncos have averaged 31:35 in time of possession and have been penalized 28 times for 193-yards both improvements over a year ago.

Grading the Broncos coaching through the first four games of the season: A

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