East Lansing — Western Michigan coach Tim Lester felt confident his Broncos could move the ball through the air going into the game with No. 19 Michigan State on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium.
After all, Lester had senior quarterback Jon Wassink running his offense, an experienced quarterback capable of getting the throws off early and accurate.
And Wassink got quick-hitters again and again to put the Broncos in scoring position, but the Broncos failed to end drives with points, especially in the first half when the Spartans built a commanding 31-7 lead, going on to earn a 51-17 victory.
Wasted opportunities cost the Broncos any chance of keeping the game close at halftime, let alone in the fourth quarter.
Wassink was 15-of-23 for 146 yards and a TD in the first half, along with a costly interception which prevented the Broncos from putting points on the board.
Western did pile up 175 first-half yards and had 30 rushing yards, which was impressive since Michigan matched a Big Ten record by limiting Tulsa to minus-73 rushing yards in the season opener.
“Our guys were up for it, they were excited about it,” Lester said. “We didn’t finish up drives like we need to against a defense like that, but we didn’t shy away. We came out swinging and I was proud of them.
“It was important for us to put drives together. We had a little over 17 minutes of possession in the first half and that was by design, by hope, that was the plan, unfortunately they (Spartans) scored too much in the 12 minutes they had it.
"The plan was coming together, but we have to make those plays and we have the guys to make those plays.”
Lester was pleased with Wassink’s performance aside from his two interceptions.
“He made reads, he made throws,” Lester said. “They were bringing three or four different things off the edge cap blitzes and he was diagnosing them and getting rid of them before he got hit. I’m sure there were a couple of decisions by Jon, a couple of throws that he wishes he had back.”
On the Broncos opening series, Wassink connected on his first four passes, including two to his primary target in All-MAC tight end Giovanni Ricci, advancing to the Michigan State 31 before a third-and-7 incompletion.
Instead of going for it on fourth down, Lester opted to go for a 48-yard field goal, which was missed by junior Thiago Kapps. Kapps later would miss a 27-yard field goal.
“We have a book, and I go off the book and what it tells me to do,” Lester said when asked if he thought of going for it on the first series on fourth-and-7 from the MSU 31. “He’s got the leg. He just needs to get comfortable. He obviously has never played in front of this many people. His first two kicks weren’t good and then his last one was.”
On the Broncos’ second possession, Lester found a wide open Dashon Bussell, who hesitated after the grab, leaving him 2 yards shy of a first down.
The Broncos finally got on the board with their third drive when Wassink connected on all four of his passes, finding Ricci for a 14-yard TD pass with 11:34 left in the second.
Then, WMU’s defense came up with an interception, giving Wassink a short field to work with at the Broncos' 45. Wassink found freshman Skyy Moore, who made a great diving catch on a third down pass near the right sideline to the MSU 28. They advanced to the Michigan State 10 before Kapps misfired on a 27-yard field goal.
“We came into this game pretty confident of our game plan, all the credit to that defense there, Michigan State came out to play,” Ricci said. “I felt like we have a lot to learn from. We left a lot on the table there, especially at the end of that first half.
“Jon’s an unbelievable player, unbelievable quarterback. He’s really smart and knows probably what they’re doing before they even know what they decide to do, so he’s really fun to play with, and you just know that he’s always going to find the right spot to put the ball in and he did really well tonight for the most part.”
Western's defense, which was torched for 365 yards in the first half or 9.3 yards a play, did force a second turnover when Antonio Balabani tackled Connor Heyward, forcing a fumble which defensive tackle William McCabe recovered at MSU’s 17 with 2:22 left.
The Broncos had a first-and-goal at the 3 before Wassink threw into double coverage and Xavier Henderson picked it off in the end zone.
“The interception at the 3, that one hurt,” Lester said. “Jon saw what he saw, just the location of the ball was the worst part. Our receiver (Brett Borske) is 6-7 and 270 pounds and that ball should be two feet above his head and Jon threw it too low and the guy undercut him. We’re proud that we drove the ball. It’s hard to run the ball down there on them. We still tried a couple of times."
Not the ideal rematch
Western defensive end Ali Fayed played against the Spartans in East Lansing as a freshman in 2017, a 28-14 loss, and was looking forward to the rematch, feeling the Broncos’ defense would be ready while playing under defensive coordinator Lou Esposito.
Instead, the Spartans had their way in both the passing game (331 yards) and running game (251, 34 carries) for 582 total yards.
“They did a good job of RPOs, messing with our backside safety, and they got No. 3 (cornerback Anton Curtis) down the chute a couple of times,” Lester said of MSU’s passing attack which had Brian Lewerke consistently finding wide open receivers.
“We have to do a better job when we play off coverage. They ran some stop routes and the cushion was too big. We have to be able to be more physical with them. We started out physical with them, and the first three times we were physical it was pass interference on them and that makes it hard, because then they’re afraid to touch them. We have to watch the film, but we have to be better bottom line.
“I thought we did a decent job of coming back in the second half and getting a lot of the communication stuff figured out. It’s really getting it from the safeties to the corners in a loud environment. That’s the main issue.”
Eskridge shows off
Lester moved senior D’Wayne Eskridge from receiver to cornerback this season and he responded with a couple of big plays against the Spartans.
Eskridge, who has sub-4.4 speed, had 38 receptions for 776 yards last season, including a 240-yard receiving game with two TDs against Syracuse.
Eskridge was guilty of a big pass play early, and was called for an interference penalty on the opening series while covering White, but later in the quarter stripped White of the ball in the end zone after it looked like a TD catch. He finished with four tackles and three pass breakups.
Eskridge also batted down a Lewerke pass in the final minutes of the first half.
Western fans have to be wondering what would have been the last few years if Butch Hampton would have stayed around as the team’s kicker.
Hampton had 128 points — third-most points in school history — his freshman year in 2016, kicking five field goals in the 29-26 MAC championship game win over Ohio at Ford Field. He converted 19 of 24 field goals that season, but then decided to leave Kalamazoo to play soccer for his father in Oklahoma.
The Broncos have struggled since and the inability to kick field goals have cost them valuable momentum in games.
Band member ill
Western athletic director Kathy Beauregard said a band member was ill during the game and taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
“There was a young woman who had a medical condition, but she’s okay,” Beauregard. “She was alert and they were taking her to the hospital.”