WMU's Tim Lester: Win in 'home' bowl game could provide springboard

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — In many ways, bowl games are bigger for next year than this year.

They can be momentum builders, and Western Michigan knows this all too well. In 2015, the Broncos beat Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl for the program's first bowl win.

"Then," said Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester, "everyone knows what happened in 2016."

Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester.

That next year, Western Michigan won the Mid-American Conference championship and played Wisconsin in the New Year's Six Cotton Bowl. The two-year stretch put the Broncos on the map — but ultimately cost them their head coach, P.J. Fleck, who left to coach Minnesota.

That led to the hiring of Lester, a former Western Michigan quarterback, who is in his fifth season on the job, and has his team in a bowl game for the third time.

Western Michigan (7-5) plays Nevada (8-4) of the Mountain West in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field at 11 a.m. Monday. The Broncos return to a bowl for the first time since 2019, after missing out in 2020 because of COVID-19, and likewise Detroit's bowl game returns for the first time since 2019.

"Now we have a chance to win our second bowl game," Lester said. "It's a great opportunity for all our guys, for different reasons. Our program, our alumni, our seniors and our young players.

"We're excited about it."

It's been an up-and-down season for the Broncos, who beat eventual ACC champion and New Year's Six participant Pittsburgh earlier this season, but also lost to its two biggest rivals, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan — despite dominating most statistical categories throughout the season.

Its 462.4 yards a game rank 14th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, four spots ahead of College Football Playoff participant Michigan and five ahead of Central Michigan. 

The Broncos' offense is led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby, a second-team All-MAC selection who has thrown for 3,115 yards and 21 touchdowns, to just five interceptions. His favorite target is sophomore receiver and first-teamer Skyy Moore (1,256 yards, 10 touchdowns), and his second-favorite is redshirt junior Jaylen Hall (752 yards, three touchdowns) of Muskegon. But Hall won't be playing in the bowl game after entering the transfer portal.

The backfield has a dynamic duo of redshirt sophomore and second-team All-MAC pick Sean Tyler (1,004 yards, nine touchdowns) and La'Darius Jefferson (750 yards, 10 touchdowns), the Muskegon native and Michigan State transfer.

Senior offensive lineman Mike Caliendo was first-team All-MAC.

Western Michigan is going up against a Nevada offense that is 82nd nationally, giving up nearly 400 yards.

Nevada's offense was statistically potent during the regular season, but it'll be interesting to see how that shakes out at Ford Field. Star junior quarterback Carson Strong has opted out of the game to focus on the NFL Draft, where he could be a second- or third-round pick. Nevada's coaching staff from the regular season, largely, won't be in Detroit, either — with head coach Jay Norvell leaving for the Colorado State opening and taking several staffers with him, including the offensive coordinator. The defensive coordinator left for Washington State. It's all made preparation a bit tricky for Lester and Co.

"We're not gonna chase ghosts," said Lester, whose team opened as a touchdown underdog and now is a touchdown favorite, one of the wildest spread swings you'll see — but attributed to the uncertainty about Nevada's roster and personnel. "Western Michigan needs to show up ready to play football, because we really don't know a ton about what we're going to get."

Strong's likely replacement at quarterback is 6-foot-9 senior Nate Cox, who appeared sparingly during nine games this season.

Western Michigan's defense — which oddly ranks 25th in total defense, but 88th in scoring defense — is led by senior lineman and Dearborn native Ali Fayad, the MAC defensive player of the year who had 11.5 sacks.

Ali Fayad

Senior lineman Ralph Holley (Orchard Lake St. Mary's), junior linebacker Zaire Barnes (three fumble recoveries) and junior cornerback Dorian Jackson were second-team All-MAC.

College football players, by and large, root for a tropical destination for bowl season — but for Fayad, Holley and senior linebacker A.J. Thomas (U-D Jesuit) — this is a chance to play in front of friends and family. The team arrived in town Thursday. It's also a chance, Lester said, for more alums to get to see a bowl game in person. Lester remembers traveling to the Texas Bowl with his college roommate in 2008 to watch the Broncos play, and it was a great experience, but those kind of trips aren't possible for everyone.

Detroit is much more doable for many alums, thousands of whom live in the area — and can get an up-close look at their team, and, just maybe, the future.

"The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear," said Lester, who is 31-28 at Western Michigan, with no losing seasons but no banner seasons yet, either. 

"The future is right now."

Quick Lane Bowl


►Kickoff: 11 a.m., Monday, Ford Field, Detroit

►TV/radio: ESPN/1270

►Records: Western Michigan 7-5; Nevada 8-4

►Line: Western Michigan by 7

►Outlook: This is the seventh Quick Lane Bowl, and the first appearance by Western Michigan. Central Michigan (2015) and Eastern Michigan (2019) each appeared once and both lost. The Broncos last appeared in a Detroit bowl game in 2011, falling to Purdue, 37-32, before 46,177 fans. That bowl game, originally known as the Motor City Bowl, ran from 1997 through 2013.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984