Tim Lester couldn’t have enjoyed a better Mid-American Conference debut as head coach of Western Michigan than he did Saturday night with the Broncos’ 55-3 rout of Ball State at Waldo Stadium.
It was the Broncos’ third straight win, but a statement that they will definitely be a threat to repeat as MAC champions after having an unbeaten regular season before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin last year.
The winning formula is much like a year ago when the Broncos forced turnovers and turned them into TDs.
The Broncos have forced 10 turnovers in their 3-2 start and have a plus-five turnover margin. They will play at Buffalo Saturday.
“We always say in our locker room that it’s a simple game – it’s about touchdowns and turnovers, about not settling for field goals and finding ways to get into the end zone and taking the ball away,” Lester said. “That’s what I want our players focused on.”
Alex Grace, who set the state’s single-season record for rushing yards (2,952) his junior year at Saginaw Swan Valley in 2013, is making an impact as a junior linebacker / special teams player. He set the tempo by forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff, which Obbie Jackson (West Bloomfield) turned into a 21-yard return for a TD.
“He played great,” said Lester of Grace, who forced two fumbles and had six tackles. “On the opening kickoff he was the one that took on his blocker and his blocker was the one that actually caused the fumble, but Alex threw him into the runner.
“He’s been getting more comfortable playing the linebacker spot, and we’ve rotated him, which has been great for Asantay Brown to get a little bit more rest since we trust Alex so much. He’s really come on this year, just a guy who gives effort and is extremely talented. He’s making the transition from a great high school running back into a linebacker and it’s fun to watch him get better every time he gets out there.”
Redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink is also making great strides in his first year as WMU’s starting quarterback, completing 14-of-20 passes for a career-high 240 yards and three TDs with Keishawn Watson being his go-to receiver (five receptions, 93 yards, two TDs).
Lester is finding ways to get the ball to cornerback Darius Phillips, especially since teams are kicking the ball away from him after consecutive 100-yard TD returns in the first two games of the season, losses to USC and Michigan State.
“We put a couple plays in every week since he’s a dynamic player, one of the best players I think in the country with the ball in his hands,” said Lester of Phillips, who had two catches for 16 yards. “People aren’t kicking him the ball anymore. I always want to get him five to seven touches every game, and in the last couple of games he’s only been able to catch one or two kicks a game. We put him in there on offense and he got three touches. He just loves to compete and he picked up the offense quickly.”
Next up is a Buffalo team that won its MAC opener, 27-13 at Kent State, to raise its record to 3-2, playing competitive in its losses, including a 17-7 setback at Minnesota.
“They’re physical up front; I like their linebackers a ton so I just think they are a solid defensive unit,” Lester said. “They are No. 1 in pass defense in the league. It’s going to be a physical game. We have to win a game on the road. We haven’t done that so we have our hands full.”
WMU at Buffalo
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: University at Buffalo Stadium
Radio: 1130 AM
Records: WMU 3-2 (1-0 MAC), Buffalo 3-2 (1-0 MAC)