LOS ANGELES — The oars were pulled up from the proverbial boat and moved to the Land of A Thousand Lakes following Western Michigan football’s historic 2016 season. That doesn’t mean the Broncos can’t continue moving right along. They’ve just traded the Row for a R.I.D.E.
Relentless. Intensity. Discipline. Execution.
“Let’s RIDE” and “We Will Reign,” the latter an ode to the university fight song, are the new slogans for Western Michigan football.
Despite winning 13 games in 2016 and reaching the Cotton Bowl, not much respect was shown Western Michigan ahead of 2017. Gone are the record-setting pass-catch duo of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, and head coach P.J. Fleck — the young, energetic face of Bronco football during its run — rowed his way to the Big Ten and Minnesota.
Those departures were enough for the vast majority of college football media and pundits to tab Western Michigan behind Toledo in the race for the Mid-American Conference title —
that’s divisional title, mind you.
Few thought Western Michigan could go into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and give preseason Pac-12 Conference favorite and No. 4-ranked USC much of a fight; certainly not to the extent the Broncos would be tied in the fourth quarter and putting up more rushing yards on the Trojans than any opponent of the last two years, save Stanford.
Did first-year Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester believe it possible?
“Yeah. Heck yeah,” Lester said. “That was the plan.”
The plan nearly resulted in the marquee upset of Week 1. USC pulled away for a 49-31 win, but the Trojans were indeed taken for a R.I.D.E.
Western Michigan tallied 263 yards rushing, with four Broncos gaining between 32 and 102.
“They’re really, really good,” running back Jamauri Bogan said of the Western Michigan offensive line. “They take care of business up front, and it’s my job as a running back to burst through the holes they give me.”
If he can continue to do so at a clip similar to his performance against USC — Bogan averaged 5.1 yards per carry vs. a Trojans defense that limited opponents to 4.05 YPC in 2016 — WMU will have reason to rest easy in 2017.
“You can wake up tomorrow feeling good, know your guys played their hearts out,” Bogan added, shouting out his teammates’ play.
The Broncos can also feel good about their chances to further defy expectations in 2017. The qualities that kept Western Michigan competitive with USC — a pass rush that produced three sacks of quarterback Sam Darnold, a multifaceted run game operating behind a stout offensive line — should have it right back at the forefront of the MAC.
What makes WMU’s performance so remarkable isn’t just that it came on the road against a Top 5 opponent the program had never before faced — though those qualifiers certainly help.
Rather, Western Michigan showed an entirely new identity under its first-time head coach — and it worked.
While the element of surprise may have been at play — it happens in Week 1 with limited game film and new players taking on different responsibilities — USC head coach Clay Helton wasn’t surprised.
Helton praised Western Michigan for its multidimensional run and the expertise of its offensive line, a sentiment linebacker Uchenna Nwosu echoed.
And for WMU? It was OK if quarterback Jon Wassink completed only 11 passes for 67 yards, despite Terrell throwing for 3,533 yards in 2016. Go to what works, which was Bogan, Wassnik, LeVante Bellamy, and Jarvion Franklin toting the rock.
No Corey Davis to catch passes? Let Wassnik do that. The quarterback hauled in a touchdown reception on a pass from fullback Keishawn Watson, one of two non-throwing scores on the afternoon for Wassnik in his debut.
The Broncos fell short of a road win against a Power Five opponent in Week 1, but get another chance in Week 2.
“It hurts, and Michigan State does’t really care that we made it close,” Wassink said of WMU’s next contest. “They don’t care that we hung with USC. They’re going to come out, just like we’re going to come out next week.”
At the same time, the Broncos’ strong performance in Week 1 has them riding strong into the rest of the season.
“We found what we’re made of…and we’re going to go attack next week.”
Western Michigan last beat Michigan State when Woodrow Wilson was president, 11 months after the Armistice that ended World War I — which, at the time of Western Michigan’s 21-18 defeat of Sparty, was still called The Great War.
But whether Rowing The Boat or on a RIDE, Western Michigan has been all about historic milestones lately. A revamped Bronco bunch scoring a milestone win over Michigan State would be a fitting first win in this new era.