Western Michigan coach Tim Lester hopes a win in Dallas can propel the Broncos back to the heights they were at the last time the team played in Texas.
Heading into Monday’s ServPro First Responder Bowl against Western Kentucky (8-4), the Broncos coach sees a lot of similarities between this season’s team and the 2015 one that was on the cusp of the program’s biggest breakout season.
“You always use parallels, and in 2015, we had the same record,” Lester said. “We went down to the Bahamas Bowl and got the first win in the history of our program in a bowl game. Obviously that momentum helped us in 2016. We’re aware of that, and what it can mean, and the momentum it can build in the offseason.”
The Broncos are 1-8 in bowl games and are trying to break a disturbing trend for the state’s mid-major fans.
Michigan’s Mid-American Conference schools are not holding up their end of the bargain for the league, with Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan suffering the MAC’s only bowl losses, while Buffalo and Kent State earned wins.
This is the second time all three Michigan MAC schools have played in a bowl game. In 2016, Central, Eastern and Western went 0-3.
Western Michigan (7-5) has a chance to hold off a repeat and also looks to repeat a feat of its own when the Broncos won the Bahamas Bowl 45-31 over Middle Tennessee State in 2015, giving coach P.J. Fleck momentum heading into his fourth year, which turned into a 13-1 season and Cotton Bowl berth in 2016.
Lester is 20-17 in the three seasons since but said the program is primed for a breakthrough back to the top of the MAC.
“Every team in this league says they want to win the MAC championship every single year. Not all have the realistic opportunity of doing it, and we do,” Lester said. “Year after year after year, and it’s hard to do, but we’re team 114 (in program history) and we’ve won three (MAC titles). We want to change that so it’s not one every 33 years.”
Lester’s been trying for much of his life, starring as the Broncos quarterback from 1996-99, falling short in the conference championship game against Marshall his senior year, as Chad Pennington threw a game-winning touchdown with 4 seconds left in a 34-30 triumph.
Lester said he hopes his senior quarterback Jon Wassink avoids a similar fate in his own final game.
Wassink won the Wuerffel Trophy, named after Florida’s Heisman Trophy winner Danny, given to the player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement, joining former WMU quarterback Tim Hiller, who won the award in 2009.
Wassink said he came of age in the Western Michigan offense during bowl practices for the 2016 Cotton Bowl, and Lester said young players similarly have blossomed in preparation for Monday’s game.
But the Broncos will ultimately rely on players like Wassink, who needs three completions for 500 in his Western Michigan career and one touchdown for 50; senior running back LeVante Bellamy, who rushed for 1,412 yards and 23 touchdowns in winning MAC Offensive Player of the Year; and junior linebacker Treshaun Hayward (Ann Arbor Skyline), who had 132 tackles and won MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Wassink, a Grand Rapids South Christian alumnus, will have to battle a top-20 defense led by a former WMU staffer in Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Clayton White, a former secondary coach on staff with Lester in 2006.
“They give up 20 points a game,” Lester said. “And this day and age of college football, with the rules the way they are, it’s hard to hold teams to 20 points a game.”
Lester said Western Michigan, which lost 17-14 to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26 with a berth in the MAC championship at stake, can raise the bar past 7-5 seasons going forward.
It’s also the last chance for Wassink, who senior teammate Antonio Balabani praised effusively for his character.
“As a human being, as a man, you can’t be a better guy than him. Just everything, head to toe,” Balabani, of Macomb Dakota, said. “Sometimes I get jealous, I’m like, 'Man, I’m trying to be like that.'
“But he’s a great guy, great guy.”
The senior quarterback said he’s hoping the senior class, the second-winningest class in WMU history, can end its run with a win and a springboard for more.
“I don’t know honestly what it’s going to feel like,” Wassink said. “I’m more excited and happy that we get another game.”
First Responder Bowl
Western Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Monday, Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas
Records: Western Michigan 7-5, Western Kentucky 8-4
Line: Western Kentucky by 3.5
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.