Michigan State vs. Western Michigan
►Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
►TV/radio: BTN/760 AM
►Records: Both teams 1-0
►Line: Michigan State by 17.5
View from the other side
Andy Pepper is the sports director at WWMT in Kalamazoo. He breaks down the Broncos for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan State-Western Michigan game at Spartan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @APepperWWMT
►Question: What does a healthy Jon Wassink mean for the Broncos?
►Pepper: It means everything. When healthy, Wassink, who suffered season-ending injuries in each of the last two seasons, has been outstanding. The senior was razor sharp last week, completing 20 of 25 passes for 368 yards and five touchdowns. Last season Wassink threw for just under 2,000 yards and 16 TDs while also running for six other scores before getting injured in the first quarter of the Broncos’ Week 9 loss to Toledo.
►Question: Can LeVante Bellamy find any running room against MSU’s defense?
►Pepper: Bellamy was surprisingly held in check last week against Monmouth, carrying the ball 18 times for just 53 yards. The Spartans, meanwhile, held Tulsa to about minus-900 yards rushing (no need to check my math) so figuring out a way to get Bellamy untracked is imperative. Coach Tim Lester says Western has to stay committed to the running game no matter what happens. Bellamy – who ran a laser-timed 4.28 40-yard dash this spring – is the type of back who could get bottled up all game, but still hurt MSU by breaking free for two or three long runs.
►Question: How has the defense improved in DC Lou Esposito’s first full season?
►Pepper: I can’t emphasize enough how much the Broncos defensive players absolutely love Coach Espo. Esposito expects his guys to play with both energy and discipline. This isn’t a passive defense. Esposito likes to disguise coverages and get after the quarterback. Esposito has been the DC for just three games dating back to last season, but the early returns have been promising. The Broncos held eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois to just 21 points in last year’s regular-season finale, and Monmouth to 13 points in last week’s opener.
►Question: Outside of Wassink and Bellamy, who are some Broncos to keep an eye on?
►Pepper: Coach Lester loves freshman wideout DaShon Bussell, who had five catches for 116 yards last week. Tight end Giovanni Ricci is a converted wide receiver who can really move and had 97 yards receiving and a pair of scores against the Hawks. Speaking of converted wide receivers, D’Wayne Eskridge, perhaps the second-fastest player on the team, moved to cornerback this spring and led the Broncos in tackles in Week 1. Mississippi State transfer and senior kick returner Keith Mixon averaged nearly 48 yards a return last week. The Broncos lead the nation in kickoff return average and are 10th in punt returns.
►Question: These matchups always seem to be close. Can this be the year WMU pulls the upset?
►Pepper: I really think this week is going to be a huge barometer for both the Broncos and Spartans. If Western can stay in the ballgame and move the ball against this fantastic MSU defense, then they will have little trouble lighting up MAC opponents. This will be a field-position game for the Broncos. Wassink has to stay calm and avoid sacks and turnovers. Western needs to stay patient with the running game in hopes of eventually springing the speedy Bellamy for a long gain or two, and the veteran WMU defense will have to do its part against a still struggling Spartans offense that managed just 300 yards and one offensive TD against Tulsa.
Players to watch
►Jon Wassink, QB: The Broncos are glad to have the senior back after he missed the final four games last season with a fractured collarbone. He came out firing in the opening win over Monmouth, throwing for 368 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. It was the third time in Wassink’s career that he’s thrown for more than 300 yards in a game, and he’s now thrown 35 career touchdown passes, moving into the top 10 in program history.
►LeVante Bellamy, RB: The senior has had his share of success when facing Power Five opponents, averaging 92.5 yards rushing in those games. He earned first-team All-MAC honors last season, running for 1,228 yards and six touchdowns and averaging 6.0 yards a carry. Bellamy was limited to just 53 yards rushing in the season-opener but managed 67 yards on 12 carries the last time the Broncos faced the Spartans in 2017.
►D’Wayne Eskridge, CB: The senior played all 13 games last season at wide receiver, finishing second on the team with 38 receptions for 776 yards and three touchdowns. He made the shift to defense for the 2019 season and led the Broncos with eight tackles in the victory over Monmouth while breaking up one pass. Fellow CB Anton Curtis is also a former receiver, having played 12 games on offense in 2017.
Facts and figures
►Early returns: Western Michigan has fared well in the month of September under coach Tim Lester. The Broncos went 3-2 in Lester’s first season of 2017 and recorded a 3-1 mark last season. After losing at Michigan on Sept. 8 last year, Western Michigan has won three in a row. To extend that streak to four, the Broncos will have to beat Michigan State for the first time since 1919. Since then, MSU has won 11 straight, including all five under Mark Dantonio.
►Seeing red: Western Michigan reached the red zone seven times last week against Monmouth and scored on all seven trips. In the last four games, the Broncos have made 22 trips to the red zone and scored 115 points on 19 of those possessions. They’ll have their work cut out for them against a Michigan State defense that allowed only one touchdown last week and limited Tulsa to 80 total yards.
►Happy returns: The Broncos have always been good in special teams, featuring some of the top return men in the MAC. Graduate transfer Keith Mixon Jr. from Mississippi State appears to be the next in line. He returned three kicks for 143 yards against Monmouth, giving the Broncos the best kick return average (47.67) in the nation. His 143 yards were the most since Darius Phillips had 185 against Michigan State in 2015.