The pair of MAC West Division titles in 1999 and 2000 are becoming a fading memory at Western Michigan. In 2002, the Broncos suffered four losses by a combined 15 points en route to a 4-8 season. Last year, WMU finished 5-7, but the margin in its losses was more profound. Now the Broncos must face a 2004 schedule that includes road games at Illinois and Virginia Tech and MAC games against Bowling Green, Toledo, Miami and Marshall. Oh, by the way, WMU lost its top two defensive players (one to the NFL Draft) it's two veteran quarterbacks and a former 1,000-yard rusher.
Gary Darnell's Broncos have been known for their wide-open passing attack, but the veteran coach has promised a more balanced offense this fall.
"People who watch us expect a big play every down, but we can't afford to be that greedy," Darnell said. "We will be pushing back to our more traditional balance of 50-50 between the pass and rush."
OffenseWestern Michigan had plenty of success throwing the ball last season, but the run game was almost non-existent. The Broncos finished eighth nationally in passing (308.4 yards per game) but ranked 116th in rushing with a paltry 81.1 yards per game.
The good news: Darnell has publicly stated that there will be more of a balance this season between the pass and the run. The bad news: The majority of experience returning on offense is from the receiving corps.
The loss of Jon Drach and Chad Munson, who combined to throw 31 touchdowns and 3,622 yards in '03, leaves a big question mark at the quarterback position. Transfer Ryan Cubit boasts the big-game experience, having set four freshman passing records at Rutgers. Cubit will battle junior Blayne Baggett, who has thrown just 14 passes at WMU, to guide the offense.
Juniors Trovon Riley and Daniel Marks will try to revive the Broncos' running game, which averaged just 2.8 yards per carry last season -- and that was with Phil Reed, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2002, still around. Riley has game-breaking speed, but has been oft-injured.
The receiving corps is paced by Greg Jennings, a junior playmaker who recorded six 100-yard games and earned the team's offensive MVP award. He'll be joined by Tyrone Walker, a speedster who averaged 18 yards per catch in '03. In order for the running game to take off, the offensive line will need to step up, and there is plenty of experience returning in the trenches.
DefenseThe Western Michigan defense lost its heart and soul with the departures of two-time All-America end Jason Babin and two-time team MVP Jason Feldpausch. The duo combined for 200 tackles last season. End Jack Gitler was a second-team All-MAC pick after recording seven sacks last season, but Babin is no longer around to occupy offensive linemen.
Mike Giorgianni and Paul Tithof offer stability at linebacker. The two entered last season with no Division I-A experience and emerged as solid starters.
"Whatever level it takes to win in this league ... I think those guys can do it," Darnell said. "We have personnel and attitude at linebacker."
The secondary should be strong with DeRae Allen and Scott Robinson, a converted safety, manning the corners. Kevin Ford, who posted 111 tackles last season, provides experience at free safety, but former walk-on Mark Hardy will have big shoes to fill replacing Feldpausch at weak safety.
SpecialistsAll-MAC first-team punter Adam Anderson averaged 43.9 yards per kick, and 17 of his punts went for 50-plus yards. Robert Menchinger hit all 41 PATs he attempted in 2003 but converted just 8-of-15 field goals. Jennings and Walker will handle kickoff and punt returns.
Final AnalysisAfter three years of mediocrity, this is a critical year for Darnell. Unfortunately, players like Babin and Feldpausch aren't easily replaceable. The Broncos face a formidable schedule with early road trips to Illinois and Virginia Tech. If the quarterback and running back positions aren't solidified before conference play, the Broncos could be in for a long season.