Following a gut-wrenching 35-34 win over Old Dominion (1-3) last week, UB football (2-2) will kick off Mid-American Conference play against the Western Michigan Broncos (3-1) Saturday afternoon at UB Stadium.
Despite heading into S.B. Ballard Stadium as 13.5-point favorites against the Monarchs, the Bulls barely survived against ODU last Saturday.
After putting together a 35-7 lead at halftime, disaster nearly struck as UB allowed 27 unanswered points in the second half. Old Dominion scored a touchdown with 19 seconds remaining and looked to tie the game with an extra point, but the Monarchs were hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the celebration. The penalty backed up the extra point attempt 15 yards and the kick sailed wide right.
While a win is a win, the Bulls survived by the skin of their teeth to advance to 2-2.
On the flip side, Western Michigan is on a three-game winning streak since falling to in-state foe No. 14 Michigan in Week 1. The Broncos have since beaten FCS opponent Illinois State, Power Five program Pittsburgh and 2020 Mountain West Champions San Jose State in impressive fashion.
Now, each team has circled Week 5 as the start of MAC play. The road to Detroit for both teams officially begins Saturday at UB Stadium, where the vaccine requirement will go into effect for the first time and thousands will attend Homecoming events.
Here’s what to expect from the Broncos Saturday:
Coach: Tim Lester, 57-44 (27-21 at Western Michigan), fifth season with the Broncos
After starting the season with four straight wins in a shortened six-game MAC season, Western Michigan dropped its final two contests and barely missed the MAC Championship Game.
Despite a strong showing from the Broncos, Western Michigan’s most memorable moment of the season came in the final week of MAC play against Ball State.
Down three points at their own 49-yard line with six seconds remaining, the Broncos attempted to lateral the ball across the field in hope of a miracle, but the Ball State sideline prematurely ran onto the field in celebration of an apparent tackle.
The runner wasn’t down, and WMU wide receiver Skyy Moore ran into the end zone among a sea of over 100 Ball State players. The chaos was short-lived, though; WMU was penalized for an illegal forward pass on the play and the game was declared final.
While the season may be remembered for the unforgettable viral moment, the Broncos were one of the best teams in the MAC in 2020.
Quarterback Kaleb Eleby was a prolific passer for the Broncos, passing for 1,699 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to a third-team All-MAC selection.
First-team All-MAC running back La’darius Jefferson — who rushed behind All-MAC selections Mike Caliendo and Jaylon Moore on the offensive line — rushed for 624 yards and five touchdowns through six games. Eleby also contributed to the Broncos’ rushing attack with four touchdowns on the ground.
Moore and wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge led Western Michigan with a combined 1,156 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Moore returned to WMU for the 2021 season while Eskridge was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Broncos were in the middle of the pack defensively in the MAC last season. WMU surrendered 34.2 points per game and allowed 399.7 yards in total offense last season.
Linebacker Treshaun Hayward led the Broncos with 58 tackles en route to third-team All-MAC honors. But Western Michigan lost Hayward to the transfer portal, as the Ypsilanti, MI native elected to transfer to Arizona during the offseason.
Safety Bricen Garner and linebacker A.J. Thomas combined for 91 tackles; both playmakers returned to WMU for the 2021 season.
Finally able to play a non-conference schedule for the first time since 2019, Western Michigan is making the most of its opportunities in 2021.
The Broncos are riding a three-game winning streak following a 47-14 Week 1 loss to Michigan, beating opponents in the FCS, ACC and Mountain West along the way.
WMU’s defense has been on full display through four games, with the Broncos ranking first in the MAC with 308.8 yards per game allowed and third with 22.8 points per game allowed.
Coming off a dominant defensive display in a 23-3 victory over San Jose State, the Broncos defense is hitting on all cylinders heading into Buffalo.
Junior linebackers Corvin Moment and Zaire Barnes lead the Broncos with 22 and 19 tackles respectively. Moment has also contributed to the WMU pass rush with two sacks.
Senior defensive lineman Ralph Holley has recorded a team-high 3.5 sacks through four games while freshman defensive lineman Marshawn Kneeland and sophomore linebacker Jake Selig each have 1.5 sacks.
Garner is once again a force in the secondary, as the Pittsburgh native recorded an interception in a 28-0 win over FCS Illinois State.
Eleby leads the Western Michigan offense in his second season and is off to another impressive start for the Broncos.
The redshirt sophomore leads the MAC in passing yards (902) and passing touchdowns (7) and has yet to throw an interception in four games.
UB head coach Maurice Linguist praised the Broncos’coaching staff for setting up Eleby to succeed. He says he is planning for the danger the 2020 third-team All-MAC selection poses.
“Western Michigan has a very talented and efficient quarterback,” Linguist said in a press conference at the Murchie Family Fieldhouse Tuesday. “They do a great job in the RPO (run-pass option) of giving him clean reads, there’s clarity in their reads and where the ball is gonna go. We’re dissecting the film and really know we have a big challenge ahead of ourselves.”
Sophomore wide receiver Corey Croooms ranks second in the MAC with 346 receiving yards (behind UB’s Quian Williams) and third with three receiving touchdowns. Moore has 22 catches and 241 receiving yards.
On the ground, Jefferson is splitting carries with sophomore running back Sean Taylor. Jefferson has found the end zone six times through four games and the duo have combined for 552 rushing yards.
The Broncos are coming off three consecutive wins while the Bulls are coming off a desperate 35-34 victory over Old Dominion.
The momentum is with the Broncos, thus justifying Western Michigan being 6.5-point favorites heading into Buffalo.
WMU seems extremely well-balanced through four games, but MAC football is a different challenge.
If the Bulls can contain Eleby on defense and move the ball consistently on offense, they will be in a prime position to win their MAC opener against Western Michigan.
Expect the Bulls to put up a tough fight as home underdogs and maybe even come up with a win against the Broncos.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor at The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.