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5 Questions with Hustle Belt: How can Western Michigan upset Michigan State?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan State will host Western Michigan to kick off its 2022 football season. The game begins at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday night and will be broadcast on ESPN2.

So, what should the Spartans expect from the Broncos? We spoke with Andrew Pearson of Hustle Belt — SB Nation’s home for all Mid-American Conference (MAC) teams — to get a better understanding of what Western Michigan looks like entering the 2022 campaign.

Is Western Michigan a threat to win the MAC? Which WMU players should MSU fans watch out for? Can the Broncos actually upset the Spartans? Andrew answers these questions and more.

1. What are your expectations for Western Michigan this season? Are the Broncos a contender in the MAC?

Andrew: The Broncos are a dark horse contender for the MAC West. The defense was an issue last season, but with low turnover and players coming back from injury, it needs to be the strength of the team. The offense turns over at every position except running back. Realistically their season to compete was last season and this year could see some regression. The coaches have recruited well, but this season will put that to the test.

Most Western Michigan fans who really pay attention to the team are still trying to chase the Cotton Bowl dragon and another 6-6 year is not going to be exciting to them. However, it’s probably where this team is going to end up. Going to a bowl game with good defense and a brand new, young offense is a realistic target for this year’s squad. I don’t think anyone is going undefeated in the MAC this season so maybe the Broncos can catch some teams sleeping and end up in contention. That’s the most optimistic reading of the tea leaves, though.

2. There are a few more storylines this year between Michigan State and Western Michigan: Jeff Thorne, the father of MSU quarterback Payton Thorne, is the offensive coordinator for WMU. Jayden Reed is a former Bronco (2018) and Payton Thorne was a Western Michigan commit at one time. Of course, it’s an intrastate battle as well. Do you feel like this game means a little bit more to WMU or that the Broncos’ players are carrying an extra chip on their shoulders this week?

Andrew: Jeff Thorne being Payton’s father and seeing Jayden Reed on the same field certainly brings extra juice to Friday’s game, but life is about managing expectations, at least to me. The Broncos want to build off the bowl win that finished the season last year. Multiple players said as much and that brought new energy to the offseason practices.

No team should ever admit defeat before the game starts, but the Broncos know what they are up against this week. WMU isn’t competing in the Big Ten, obviously, their goals for this season should be almost independent of the outcome of this game. They should aim to play well and surprise Michigan State if the opportunity is there, but if it isn’t, don’t let this game beat them twice.

3. Outside of running back and former Spartan La’Darius Jefferson, and Doak Walker Award watch list member and fellow running back Sean Tyler, who are the players to watch on Western’s offense and why?

Andrew: There are seven fresh faces on the offensive side of the ball this season. Jefferson and Tyler are going to carry the team Friday as far as they can, but they need Jack Salopek to get into a groove early.

Kaleb Eleby left at the end of last season to enter the NFL Draft, which leaves redshirt freshman Salopek to take the reins. He’s been in the program for two years so he’s not learning the playbook or the scheme, but he is going to be reading a live defense for the first time as a starter. Reports from camp say he’s more mobile than Eleby, but the arm strength isn’t all there. I’m optimistic that he’s the answer at quarterback, but time will tell.

On the outside, Corey Crooms is the only returning receiver or tight end with a catch in 2021. He proved that he is a capable and productive receiver last season and flashed during the Broncos’ upset win against Pittsburgh with eight catches for 161 yards and a touchdown. Normally, having only the No. 3 receiver returning from the previous season can be cause for concern, but with Crooms, I’m comfortable that he will be a good No. 1 in 2022.

4. How about on the defensive side of the ball? What names should MSU fans be aware of and why?

Andrew: If the Broncos can limit the explosive plays on defense, they will be in every game. To that end, all three starting linebackers from a year ago return after two of them made All-MAC teams. Corvin Moment and Zaire Barnes combined for 21 tackles for loss and 136 total tackles. They get downhill and will be senior leaders on this defense this year.

Along the line, defensive end Ali Fayad and defensive tackle Ralph Holley left after 2021. Fayad was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year and will be tough to replace. No one player will do it, but Andre Carter was impressive opposite Fayad, and Marshawn Kneeland will get starter reps. Improvement from both could keep the line at the same level, but it’s going to be difficult to be as productive.

In the defensive backfield, Bricen Garner was an All-MAC first-team safety in 2020. In 2021, he was injured early in the season and missed four games. He was limited in the remaining four as well. Garner being back to the best safety in the MAC would help out the defense Friday and all season.

5. Western Michigan hasn’t defeated Michigan State since 1919. What needs to happen for the Broncos to upset the Spartans in 2022?

Four “ifs” need to happen:

  • If the MSU offensive line has issues and the front seven bottle up the run and can get to Thorne.
  • If the WMU secondary can keep Reed in front of them.
  • If the Bronco passing game finds enough success to take pressure off the running game.
  • If the WMU offensive line can get some push and give Tyler and Jefferson running lanes.

That’s four SIGNIFICANT “ifs.” Any one of those can cause the Broncos to lose the game. The Broncos cannot give up big plays or allow six yards per rush. Western doesn’t need to shut out the Spartans, but it can’t be easy either. They also cannot become one-dimensional on offense. The talent on the Michigan State defense is too high for that to work. It’s probably too tight of a rope to walk.

Bonus: What is your final score prediction?

WMU can put a couple of drives together, but in general, has trouble moving the ball. The defense plays well, but is put in too many tough spots. Give me Michigan State, 31-14.

We truly appreciate Drew taking the time to give us some thoughts and valuable insights into Western Michigan. Follow Drew on Twitter, and for the best possible coverage on the MAC, be sure to follow Hustle Belt as well.

My responses to Drew’s questions can be read here.

This article was updated Thursday night to reflect the fact ESPN moved the Western Michigan-Michigan State game to ESPN2.