WMU's defense excelling, forcing turnovers heading into MAC opener at Buffalo

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Western Michigan will be carrying a three-game winning streak into its Mid-American Conference opener at Buffalo on Saturday, entering the game with a defense that shows it can cause havoc.

The Broncos began their winning streak by limiting FCS opponent Illinois State to 57 total yards in a 28-0 win. They followed it up by forcing three turnovers in a 44-41 upset at Pittsburgh, then had eight sacks and forced three more turnovers in a 23-3 victory over Mountain West champion San Jose State on Saturday at Waldo Stadium.

Western Michigan defensive coordinator Lou Esposito.

WMU (3-1) has converted the turnovers into 31 points the last two games and hopes to continue the trend against MAC East defending champion Buffalo (2-2).

The Broncos defeated the Bulls the last time the teams played 71-68 in seven overtimes in 2017 at Buffalo. The game which featured 1,348 total yards and a then-NCAA record 139 points.

More: Saturday's state football: Eleby leads Western Michigan to victory over San Jose State

WMU defensive coordinator Lou Esposito had the Broncos playing tough defensively against San Jose State while he also serving as acting head coach.

“Our defense did a great job of keeping the pressure on San Jose,” said WMU fifth-year coach Tim Lester, who sat out after testing positive for COVID. “We covered well, ran to the ball, and got turnovers. It was a great performance.”

WMU’s defense limited San Jose State to 119 total yards while getting eight sacks. It made things uncomfortable for Nick Starkel, who threw for 453 yards and three TDs in last year’s 34-20 Mountain West conference championship game win over Boise State.

Starkel completed just 6-of-14 passes for 55 yards against the Broncos. WMU picked off a pass and knocked Starkel out of the game in the second half.

The Broncos own a plus-five turnover ratio. As impressive as the Broncos’ wins were over Pitt and San Jose State, Lester knows the true test begins with conference play.

WMU put itself in position to win the MAC West the past two years, only to lose would-be-clinchers at Northern Illinois (2019) and Ball State (2020).

Buffalo is led by coach Maurice Linguist, briefly the co-defensive coordinator at Michigan.

“We’re excited to play an extremely talented Buffalo team,” said Lester, who will continue to coach virtually until Thursday. “Road conference games are key to success in our league.”

Broncos sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby will have to do a better job of finishing drives after going just 3-of-14 on third downs Saturday. Eleby has completed 64.6% of his passes for 902 yards and seven TDs without an interception.

Buffalo has committed just two turnovers this season. It showcased a strong running game, which piled up 262 yards in a 28-25 loss to No. 16 Coastal Carolina on Sept. 18. Kyle Vantrease threw for 191 yards and a TD in Saturday’s 35-34 win over Old Dominion, a game in which Buffalo had a 35-7 halftime lead.

Bryant controls EMU offense

Ben Bryant has taken over as Eastern Michigan’s starting quarterback. The Eagles head to Northern Illinois on Saturday for their MAC opener.

Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati, threw for 228 yards and three TDs, without an interception, in a 59-21 rout of Texas State last week. He ran for another score.

That came a week after he threw for 298 yards and a TD without an interception in a 42-28 win at UMass.

Bryant will be making his MAC debut Saturday against a Northern Illinois team that defeated Georgia Tech earlier this season.

“Ben is really playing well,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said. “He’s still learning our offense, but he’s learning it quickly and is really doing a good job. Our protection was outstanding. Dylan (Drummond) and Hoss (Hassan Beydoun) ran good routes and found some holes in their secondary.”

The 59 points were the most for EMU against a non-conference FBS opponent since scoring 51 against UNLV in 1995.

Northern Illinois has allowed an average of 430 total yards a game, 240 on the ground. EMU ran for 242 yards against Texas State.

EMU’s defense will be facing former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi. He had his best game Saturday in a 41-14 rout of Maine, throwing for 282 yards and a TD. Lombardi rushed for 119 yards and three scores.

“We played them in the last game last year (a 41-33 EMU win) which ended up being December 12th,” Creighton said. "They’re playing better football offensively and defensively.

“They have a quarterback who can throw it but can also run it. He’s averaging 50 yards a game (rushing). He’s a big, strong, really tough quarterback.”

Northern Illinois’ running attack is led by freshman Harrison Waylee (487 yards, four TDs). He has rushed for 130 or more yards in every game except Michigan, which limited him to 34 yards on 12 carries.

Return for Richardson?

Daniel Richardson wants his starting job back as Central Michigan quarterback.

Richardson, who started as a freshman last season, lost his job to Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon.

Sirmon struggled (14-of-26, 121 yards, TD, INT) in the first half against Florida International on Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Richardson came in and rallied the Chippewas back from a 27-10 second-half deficit to earn a 31-27 victory.

Richardson picked apart FIU’s defense during four fourth-quarter drives. He completed 15-of-22 passes for 267 yards and three TDs. His first scoring toss came on a 15-yarder to MAC Freshman Player of the Year Lew Nichols III. Nicholls rushed for 152 yards as CMU had a season-high 599 total yards.

CMU (2-2), which suffered non-conference losses on the road to Missouri and LSU, will play its MAC opener Saturday at Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks (1-3) are coming off a 23-10 loss at Army.

Miami has had trouble stopping the run in losses to Cincinnati, Minnesota and Army. It has allowed 806 rushing yards, nearly 270 a game.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com