How Close Has Western Michigan Been to the MAC Championship Game?

The Broncos have been painfully close to getting another appearance in the MAC Championship game almost every year since Tim Lester took over. The only time that’s a bad thing is when the previous coach out recruited the conference by a mile, left the roster stacked, and went undefeated before a New Year’s Six bowl game. 

Well, would you look at that.

In that context it’s pretty easy to view this coaching tenure as a failure. 

Coaching searches are a crap shoot though. It’s not a guarantee that any other coach would’ve bridged that gap and it’s possible that drop off is even larger with another coach. 

That’s another source of frustration in the fan base. Being stuck in mediocrity can be hard to stomach. Not bad enough for it to be a clear and easy decision to change direction, and not good enough to be happy with the season.

Glen Mason Territory

My favorite college football analyst and writer is Bill Connelly. He describes this situation as “Glen Mason Territory”. Glen Mason was fired from Minnesota for not winning enough games. No coach at Minnesota had a winning record in their time at Minnesota in almost 20 years. Glen Mason goes 64-57 in 10 seasons, and Minnesota got bored winning 7 or 8 games a season. They went 15-30 in the 4 years after he left.

Bill’s solution, which I tend to agree with, is to support them better. A coach search is a roll of the dice. Tennessee makes a mockery of it every time. Obviously MAC schools have their financial limits, but try to find the solution to one of the problems holding the team back and make it happen. 

How Close Have The Broncos Been Exactly?

Really close. In the last three years they have been one win away from representing the MAC West. In two of those seasons they knew they were in that situation before the game kicked off. 

In Lester’s first season the Broncos went 4-4 in conference. Toledo went 7-1. They weren’t close. There were 3 one possession games that they lost but even if they win all of those, they would need to beat Toledo in the last game to be 8-0. A loss against Toledo gives the Rockets the tie breaker. Western Michigan lost 37-10. They were not close in 2017.

Ever since is a different story.

2018: Closer

Western started the MAC campaign 4-0 with a few scares along the way. Then the Toledo game. It always seems to be the Toledo game. The starting quarterback Jon Wassink gets hurt early and is out for the remainder of the season. That destroys the defense for some reason. The Broncos lose 51-24. 

Up next is Ohio with a hot offense led by Nathan Rourke. The defense gave up 59, it was 45-0 at half time. The offense turns the ball over 6 times total. Ugly doesn’t describe this loss well enough.

The Broncos go on the road, looking to bounce back against the 3-7 Ball State Cardinals. The defense collapses again and gives up 42 points, including an overtime session. Tim Lester opts to go for two points in the first overtime. It’s a messy read option that gets stuffed and the Broncos lose. After the game, the defensive coordinator is fired for surrendering 152 points in three games.

Somehow, after all of that collapse, the Broncos bounced back and beat NIU. NIU had already secured the spot in the MAC Championship game. 

If the Broncos convert against Ball State, they go to the MACCG in 2018. That ignores a massive variable. The pressure on the game against NIU is through the roof if the Broncos have a shot at the MAC West title. Needless to say, that game plays out differently. They were pretty close, but it gets more painful in the next two years.

2019: It was right there!

The circumstances around this season scream that the coaches failed. Central Michigan represents the MAC West with a 6-2 record. 

The Broncos open MAC play with a win over the Chippewas. Then the Rockets outlast the Broncos at home 31-24. 

Two weeks later Eastern Michigan throws a curveball. EMU quarterback Mike Glass is hurt during the week of practice and Preston Hutchinson is in. This is announced basically at game time to the viewers. I don’t know if WMU had any warning, but it didn’t sound like they did. 

Preston Hutchinson torches the secondary. He throws for 357 yards. He completes 31 of 36 passes. He rushes for a touchdown and throws for three. It was the weirdest game I can remember. The whole game the Bronco secondary was giving an 8 yard cushion to the Eagle receivers and it shows in the box score. 

Western Michigan almost saved their own skin. WMU had just taken a 1 point lead with two minutes left. All they needed was a stop. What happened was a 74 yard drive on 6 plays in 1:15 for the win.

Despite all that, they win their next three games. They have a bye week and a game with NIU left. NIU has a first year coach and is 4-7 at this point. Since they own the tiebreaker with CMU, they learn over the bye week the NIU game is win-and-in for the MAC Championship.

They lose 17-14. The defense finally turned in a decent game and the offense couldn’t get it going. WMU had 4 consecutive three and outs in the second half. 

2020: Craziness in a Crazy Season

There was only one game that decided the Broncos fate this season but definitely one more worth mentioning.

Western was able to keep their hopes alive with an insane win against Toledo. If you haven’t seen the ending sequence, check out the Jomboy video about it here. Down ten points with two and half minutes left in the game WMU finds a way to pull it out.

Western Michigan absolutely won a game they shouldn’t have. Maybe if they play that game 10 times WMU isn’t down 10 late in all of them but they were in this game. 

After getting past Toledo by the skin of their teeth, they had another winner take all game with Ball State to end the season. Another game that they knew before kick off was for the MAC Championship.

And another loss. 

WMU built a solid lead into the third quarter. Then they put on a master class on how to give a game away.

  1. Stop scoring.
  2. Turn the ball over for short fields for your opponent.
  3. Give up big plays for quick scores.

They almost redeemed themselves with the craziest lateral play ever but there was an illegal forward pass, which apparently ends the play right there. Anything that happens after that, penalties included, did not happen. I didn’t know that, and wondered why the Broncos weren’t given an untimed down after the Ball State bench came on the field. The play had everything. 

The important part. Identifying the gap.

The story of the three seasons has been told. Why did it break that way? Are there themes to the seasons and critical losses? How does Tim Lester finally break through?

I like to look at Bill Connelly’s advanced box scores or five factors box scores if I have them. In 2019 he moved to ESPN and didn’t have quite the leeway to write as much stuff as he did at SB Nation. 

For 2019 and 2020 I lost the win expectancy number, but I was still able to find the rest of the data on my own.

The list of problems is short. Overall the Broncos have been good. Their problem is obviously the defense. 

It’s not close. 

It can be a little deceptive because of how often the offense has an opportunity to win the game. An offensive failure is the last image of five of the games listed above. It’s ok to hold the other team to less than 27 points occasionally. 

The five factors often show too many scoring opportunities given up. They have attempted to perfect the bend-but-don’t-break defense and it just doesn’t work. Surrendering too many scoring opportunities catches up with them against the better teams. 

It’s eye opening how often in these deciding games they allow drives to continue. They generally have the opportunity to get off the field and can’t capitalize often enough. 

Bad Game Plans

The most glaring bad game plan was at Eastern Michigan in 2019. They were suddenly against a back up quarterback and decided to never play anywhere near press coverage. I don’t have video to rewatch, but I remember how many easy throws Preston Hutchinson was gifted.

He went 31 for 36 passing. It was easy for him. It made no sense to continue to do that, especially after EMU showed they were willing to take easy yards. And they got torched. The Bronco defense allowed 6.3, 10.1, 9.2, and 12 yards per play on touchdown drives.

They aren’t all bad, but even in their wins they play a team far closer than they needed to. The 2018 4-0 start had a 1 point win at Miami, a 3 point win against EMU, and a come back 7 point win against BGSU. 

It’s never been easy.

Small offensive issues

Western Michigan’s offensive issues are minor. Occasionally the offense disappears for an extended period of time. I think this happens because they don’t let themselves take easy yards.

They’ve recently had great wide receiver talent. They’re great in space and vertically down the field. There is no doubt the offense is run first. No issue there. When it’s working it’s soul crushing for the defense.

It’s complimented by a passing attack that wants to stretch the field. The only issue is they seem to have some trouble getting 5 yards on a pass. On a third and short, the defense knows that a run is coming. They can sit on it. I’ve seen too many third and two passes go 30 yards down the field. So the defense takes away the run as best as possible and allows the low percentage pass.

The second issue is field position. In almost every game WMU has a field position disadvantage. It’s something that adds up over the course of a game. When the offense stalls, it really stalls. It’s not common in the drive charts that I pulled for the Bronco offense to pick up a first down before punting. 

It’s a three and out and a short punt. WMU has not been able to use the punt team to flip the field. 

Tim Lester is aggressive on 4th down and that plays into the field position battle. It’s the aggressive move and when it fails, they give up the ball around midfield usually. 

Any solutions?

To fix the defense, a new defensive direction might be needed. I’m not calling for the defensive coordinator’s job. I think he needs to try a new approach. If they made a change, the new guy would be the third DC in 5 years. That’s not great for continuity.

Get rid of the bend-don’t-break mentality. The defense already surrenders too many scoring chances so go for broke on creating negative plays. Set the other offense behind the chains and make it stick to force more third and long situations. 

It’s all easy on paper.

The other option is to recruit better. I don’t think this is a real issue. WMU has been in the top tier of MAC recruiting for almost a decade now. I don’t think the Broncos have a talent issue on defense, but a defense full of high three star guys would put that to bed.

The offense should strive for a bit more balance. I can understand leaning on a ground game when the quarterback room is thin or young. Kaleb Eleby proved in 2018 that he’s more than capable. 

Use a short passing game to take the easy yards more often. The mostly horizontal pass can be an extension of the run game and get the talent on the edge the ball in space easier. Balance and trust in 3rd and 4th down situations will keep the defense from sitting run. Or provide an option if that continues. 

The Broncos have been so close to going back to the MAC Championship. A vocal portion of the fanbase wants to move on. I don’t think that is the answer but Coach Lester needs to bridge that gap somehow, someway.

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