4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: BYU -12.5, Over/Under: 49
The first week of the College Football Season rolls on into Boise, as the Western Michigan Broncos face off against the Brigham Young Cougars in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl from Lyle Smith Field at Albertson’s Stadium. For much of the season, Western Michigan (7-5, 5-3 in MAC) appeared to be in the proverbial driver’s seat to at the very least represent the Mid-American Conference in the league’s Championship Game, only to see their successful campaign derailed due to a crucial injury. With the Broncos sitting at 6-2 and riding a six-game winning streak, Junior Quarterback Jon Wassink (61.5%, 2,009 YDS, 8.2 Y/A, 16 TD, 6 INT) suffered multiple torn ligaments in his right ankle during a late October clash with Toledo, which proved to be a blow that Tim Lester’s young charges simply couldn’t rebound from. They went on to lose that fateful contest 24-51, and went on to drop each of their following two outings to boot, ultimately ending their charge to a Conference Title. In those three consecutive losses, the latter two coming against Ohio (14-59) and Ball State (41-42), the previously potent offensive attack failed to keep pace with the opposition, which in turn regularly handled their dismal Defense, which has struggled throughout the term.
On the season, Western Michigan has allowed 33.3 Points per Game (103rd Overall) on a disappointing 378.3 Total Yards, including 209.3 Yards against the Pass and another 169.0 Yards versus the Run. However, during their three-game losing streak they yielded a staggering 50.7 Points on 429.3 Total Yards. Fortunately the Broncos were able to save some face in the Regular Season Finale at home against Northern Illinois, breaking a 21-21 deadlock in the Fourth Quarter to earn a hard-fought 28-21 victory. On that day, the Defense turned in arguably it’s finest performance of the season, relegating the Huskies to a scant 263 Total Yards, while forcing Three Turnovers. Wassink’s replacement, Kaleb Eleby (64.9%, 917 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 2 INT) appears to be growing into the role left vacant by his predecessor, completing 1-of-35 Passes for 285 Yards, finding the likes of Jayden Reed (55 REC, 792 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 8 TD) and D’Wayne Eskridge (36 REC, 715 YDS, 19.9 Y/R, 3 TD) downfield with great frequency, with the former reeling in Six Receptions for Eighty-Five Yards and the latter hauling in six as well for 123 Yards. Of course, once they got into the Red Zone, Lester’s side handed the football off to Jamauri Bogan (156 CAR, 702 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 15 TD), which has paid dividends all year, with the Tailback barreling into the End Zone twice. Despite seeing his carries decrease behind Redshirt Junior LeVante Bellamy (190 CAR, 1,172 YDS, 6.2 Y/C, 6 TD), the Senior has been nothing short of a touchdown-maker, scoring fifteen times thus far.
With the aforementioned Wassink already pronounced out for today’s meeting with Brigham Young, Lester will look to see if the young Eleby can continue to develop within what has oftentimes been one of the more explosive Offenses in the country, let alone the Mid-American Conference. Western Michigan has averaged a healthy 33.2 Points on 448.8 Total Yards this year, and after struggling in relief of his teammate in the loss to Toledo and the following debacle against Ohio, the Freshman Signal-Caller led the attack to 34.5 Points on 454.5 Total Yards in the final two contests, completing 60.9% of his Attempts for 472 Yards and a Touchdown, while also managing to rush for a pair of scores to boot. He certainly has a solid supporting cast around him, and who knows, if he plays well today, then maybe there will whisper’s of a Quarterback Competition this Summer at Western Michigan. Either way, expect Lester & Co. to make the most of this affair, for after last year’s 6-6 finish, the Broncos are participating in a Bowl for the first time since the Head Coach succeeded the successful P.J. Fleck, who drove the Program to a surprising 13-1 finish in 2016 before departing to Minnesota. This particular trip to the Idaho Potato Bowl marks the seventh appearance in a Bowl over the last thirteen years for Western Michigan, who own a 1-5 record in that span, with their last trip being a 16-24 loss to Wisconsin in the 2016 Cotton Bowl.
Meanwhile, Western Michigan isn’t the only team that has had to deal with unsettlement at Quarterback, for that has been the story of the season for Brigham Young (6-6, Independent), who barely earned a Bowl despite rather uninspiring play at the game’s most important position. After a disappointing 3-3 start to the campaign, third-year Head Coach Kalani Sitake finally came to the conclusion that many in Provo had come to months ahead of time: Senior Quarterback Tanner Mangum (61.1%, 1,063 YDS, 5.7 Y/A, 5 TD, 4 INT) needed to be benched. Granted, this was far from an easy decision, for Mangum, a four-year starter with the Cougars has certainly seen his ups and downs with the Program. After a stellar Freshman year in which he passed for 3,377 Yards and Twenty-Three Touchdowns, his Sophomore and Junior terms were ravaged by injuries, and throughout the first half of 2018, appeared to be a shell of the player that showed such promise back in 2015. With his decision-making now suspect, and his Yards per Attempt at a career-low 5.7, it was finally time for Sitake, who for all intents and purposes needed to do everything in his power to ensure his own job security (particularly after going just 4-9 the previous year) make a change.
That change came in the form of Zach Wilson (62.2%, 1,261 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 8 TD, 3 INT), a Transfer from USC who also happened to play Wide Receiver for the Trojans. After operating as Mangum’s backup throughout the first six outings, Wilson got the nod in a start against Hawaii, which paid immediate dividends for BYU, who dismantled the Rainbow Warriors 49-23. Wilson didn’t have to do too much, completing 16-of-24 Passes for just 194 Yards, but tossed Three Touchdowns in comparison to One Interception, while rushing for another score as well, while the Rushing Attack churned out 280 Yards and three more Touchdowns on Forty-Seven Carries. However, the Offense would stall once more over the next two weeks, scoring a combined Twenty-Two Points in back-to-back defeats to Northern Illinois (6-7) and Boise State (16-21), before getting back into gear in wins over Massachusetts (35-16) and New Mexico State (45-10), even in a loss to bitter instate rival Utah (27-35). To his credit, Wilson has certainly grown on the job, exhibiting much better accuracy than his predecessor, while stretching the field at 7.7 Yards per Attempt, a full two yards better than Mangum, only further validating Sitake’s decision. At this point, it would be a shock if this kid isn’t the Cougars’ Starting Quarterback by the time the 2019 campaign begins.
As the Offense continues to find itself with a new leader under Center, Brigham Young has had to rely upon their Defense to keep the team together in 2018. Sitake’s Defense has been largely up to the challenge, allowing a respectable 21.7 Points per Game (28th Overall) on 325.0 Total Yards, including 195.2 Yards against the Pass, and another 129.8 Yards versus the Run. With a pedigree deeply entrenched on this side of the football, Sitake has done a solid job of keeping the current tradition of strong BYU Defense, with a number of playmakers to be found in the form of Linebackers Sione Takitaki (100 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 3 PD, 1 FF) and Isaiah Kaufusi (50 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF), Defensive Lineman Corbin Kaufusi (55 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 1 PD), and Defensive Back Austin Lee (38 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FF). Look for them to be aggressive in attacking the aforementioned Eleby throughout today’s affair, for if the youngster gets comfortable in the Pocket and distribute the football to the litany of weapons around him, then it could be very long day for the Cougars. This is the second Bowl that Sitake has taken his Alma Mata to since he was hired to replace Bronco Mendenhall back in 2016, with their last appearance being in the Poinsettia Bowl two years ago. The first Tongan-born Head Coach in College football History has an upfield climb to replicate his predecessor’s consistency at the Program, taking BYU to eleven Bowls in as many years, earning a 6-5 record in the process.