Joe: Welcome aboard to our newest contributor, Austin Smith! We're excited to have you, Austin. Just to let everyone know, we're planning a preview series for each MSU football opponent for next year. Austin, can you get us kicked off for these previews?
Austin: First of all, nice to meet you all. Been a big fan of the site for years and love your work. I'm really excited to be a part of the team.
With these posts, I broke them down into four subsets for offense and defense: Overview, Player to watch, Toughest matchup for MSU and best matchup for MSU.
Also, thought it might be cool to include some stupid stat or fact about each roster each week. For example, Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco's younger brother, Tom, is a True Freshman at Western and is in the backup QB competition. Neat! [Joe: but is he elite?!]
This is NOT the same offense that came to East Lansing in 2013. As a matter of fact, the Broncos were downright potent a year ago, averaging 33.8 PPG - good for 34th in the nation and 2nd in the MAC, behind only Toledo. Western returns eight offensive starters, including star RB Jarvion Franklin (SO), Starting WR's Corey Davis (JR) and Daniel Braverman (JR - RS) and All-MAC Second Team QB Zach Terrell (JR - RS). This collection of skill players makes up what could be one of the best offenses in school history. Those four, along with First Team All-MAC OT Willie Beavers (SR), begin the year on various national award watch lists.
Player to Know – RB Jarvion Franklin (Soph)
Fleck's teams are driven by a philosophy near and dear to Spartan Faithful: running the ball. A season ago, the beneficiary of that strategy was Franklin. The former (Rivals) Three-Star recruit was an absolute force, carrying the rock 306 times (!) racking up 1,551 yards and 24 TD's (!!) on his way to being named the MAC Freshman and Offensive Player of the year (!!!). He scored three or more TD's on six different occasions, had seven games where he ran for at least 149 yards, and scored at least one Touchdown in EVERY regular season game. DECENT RATIO. Needless to say, when Franklin is rolling, so are the Broncos.
Toughest Matchup for MSU – WMU WR’s vs MSU DB’s
Although Fleck prefers an offense that skews towards the ground (503 rushing attempts to 372 passing a season ago), the issues for MSU could come against Western's passing attack. With the combination of a seasoned QB in Terrell, two big time playmakers at WR in Davis and Braverman, Western is in a position to expose the inexperience of MSU's secondary, especially whoever ends up starting at CB. MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio has always put an emphasis on stopping the opponents ground game, so it's fair to expect MSU's first priority to be keeping Franklin contained. In that case, WMU will likely to try and hit the air early in the game utilizing play action and if MSU isn't careful, they may get burned.
Best Matchup for MSU – MSU DL vs WMU OL
The Broncos return three starting Offensive Lineman, including Beavers, but the Spartan Defensive Line should be able to cause issues for Terrell and Co. with pressure -- especially as the game goes on, thanks to some incredible depth. All those offensive weapons are fine and dandy, but if they can't keep the likes of Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell out of the Terrell's lap, it will be like owning a Ferrari with a go-kart motor under the hood -- pretty, but useless.
While the numbers bear out well for the defense - 43rd nationally in points against (24.9 per game) - there is a pretty clear line of demarcation. In MAC play, the Broncos were rock solid surrendering under 21 points a game but when the big boys like Purdue, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and Air Force (using that term lightly) showed up WMU gave up almost 37 points per contest. They will start an experienced group (six seniors, two juniors) and return both the teams second-leading tackler, LB Grant DePalma (SR), and top ball hawk, CB Ronald Zamort (SR), but will have to up their pass rush to stay in this one. DL Cleveland Smith's (SR) 5.5 sacks and 8.5 TFL's were good for the most and second-most on the team, respectively, a year ago -- not exactly totals to be feared. Fleck's bunch will need to bring their A++ game, have some luck, and force some Spartan errors, if they want to hang around for long.
Player to know - CB/WR/KR Darius Philips (SO)
Philips is the proverbial Swiss Army knife for his team. A season ago, the Dearborn Heights native racked up 1,308 all-purpose yards and registered a touch at three different positions. His most notable work came on special teams, where he was a Sporting News All-American Kick Returner and led the MAC with 26.4 yards per return, including an 93-yard opening kickoff house call against Eastern Michigan. He has been converted to CB for 2015 and is expected to get some work. Corralling the explosive Philips on Kick Returns teams will be a big test for an MSU unit that had some struggles in this department last year. Conversely, WMU will certainly try to exploit his playmaking ability any way they can on offense, defense and, most of all, special teams.
Toughest Matchup for MSU - MSU WRs vs WMU DBs
This was (no pun intended) a tough one to choose but we will go with a new group of WRs testing themselves against a relatively experienced secondary. Even in their losses, WMU didn't get torched through the air. Virginia Tech QB Michael Brewer, the same guy who beat Ohio State (allegedly, as I still am not sure that actually happened) was picked twice by the Broncos and only managed 178 yards through the air. Opponents scored a mere 18 Passing TD's, while WMU picked the ball 13 times. Not bad numbers, but nothing to get worked up about. Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings and Co. can't sleep walk through this one, but if Connor Cook has time to throw (more on the in a second) the Spartans shouldn't have too many issues.
Best Matchup for MSU - MSU OL vs WMU DL
Much has been made of this edition of the Michigan State Offensive Line, with some going as far as calling it the best in the Dantonio era and, potentially, school history. The Jack's (Conklin and Allen) anchor the line and look like surefire NFL prospects. Senior OG Donovan Clark brings multiple years of starting experience, while the other Allen brother, Sophomore OG Brian, looks to build upon an impressive True Freshman campaign. The one area that is not locked down is RT where Kodi Keiler and Miguel Machado look to be in a battle. Regardless of who wins that position, MSU is in great shape. As mentioned above, the WMU pass rush was not overly fearsome a year ago, but that's not even the reasoning here. MSU's deep, experienced group will outmatch most teams they come up against in 2015, this one should be no different.
Jeremy: My highly analytical and anticipated (by few) Parks and Recreation analysis of Western Michigan:
Western Michigan is Chris Traeger. Well, Ok, maybe more accurately PJ Fleck is Chris Traeger. Chris is the most enthusiastic guy about living in Pawnee and spreads his optimism at every opportunity. Fleck is a great recruiter but can you imagine what Traeger could have a 2* recruit believing? Traeger rides into depressed towns and turns around their economy with his infectious attitude (and his actual worker bee Ben, who may be Fleck's assistants).
Traeger is an insane workout enthusiast and health nut. PJ Fleck wears cleats to practice so that he can demonstrate wide receiver routes. When his fiancee tells him that he can't dance to "One Headlight" by the Wallflowers, Chris Traeger says "Not with that attitude you can't"
When PJ Fleck is told that he is just coaching a MAC school in a rust belt city and that he can't recruit against the B1G schools he presumably has a similar response, all while he yells about ROW THE BOAT.
Joe: It'd be a shame if we didn't link to Bill Connelly's WMU preview here. One thing I'd point out about Western's surge last year: all of their wins came against teams at or worse than 85th in F/+. Were they better than in 2013? No question. But winning a lot of games in the weaker of the two MAC divisions isn't hugely impressive.
I think that MSU makes this game non-competitive from the beginning. Western isn't the type of team that can punish MSU's break-but-don't-bend defense and MSU is unlikely to sleepwalk through this one. MSU 45 - WMU 13