San Jose State Football: First Look at the Western Michigan Broncos
The Spartans will head to the land of MACtion to square off with WMU. Here’s our early preview of what to know about the Broncos.
Could these two light up the scoreboard?
San Jose State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The San Jose State Spartans will wrap up a three-game road swing in September with a clash against the Western Michigan Broncos on the 25th.
The MAC’s Broncos haven’t been able to recapture the magic of the 2016 Cotton Bowl team, but they’ve remained competitive and, most recently, have cultivated a reputation as a high-octane attack that’s good enough to do plenty of damage and pile up wins in bunches. Whether that’s enough to win another conference title, or knock off the visiting Spartans, is another story.
Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Mascot: Buster Bronco
2020 Record: 4-2 (4-2 MAC)
Head Coach: Tim Lester (fifth year, 24-20 overall). Replacing P.J. Fleck was never going to be an easy task, but the pressure to cobble together a breakthrough might be mounting. On the one hand, the Broncos have now strung together seven straight finishes at .500 or better, a streak that only Toledo and Ohio have surpassed within the MAC at present, but they haven’t won more than seven games in the last four seasons.
Last year provided the path toward that jump in the standings, though, as they figured things out on one side of the ball and scored 41.7 points per game as a result. Unfortunately, WMU also allowed 34.2 points per game and ended up going 3-2 in games which were decided by one score. Holding on to the former while improving the latter will be the name of the game in 2021.
QB Kaleb Eleby
Eleby might be the best quarterback in the Group of 5 that absolutely no one talks about (though many are, to their credit, beginning to take notice). By one measure, no quarterback in the country averaged more than Eleby’s 9.37 yards per play and, by another, only Alabama’s Mac Jones surpassed him by adjusted net yards per attempt (which adjusts for sacks, turnovers and explosive plays created).
If traditional statistics are more your thing, those are eye-popping, too: Eleby completed 64.7% of his 153 pass attempts for 1,715 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Oh, and he did all of that as a redshirt sophomore. The Mountain West has its fair share of quality QBs, but Eleby might be the best one that San Jose State faces all season.
KALEB ELEBY OVER THE MOON 🚀pic.twitter.com/tBdHfh2guY
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 5, 2020
RB La’Darius Jefferson
Eleby might get the spotlight most often on this offense, but others like Jefferson have already proven they can also make just as much of an impact in the MAC. He transferred to WMU from Michigan State and hit the ground running almost immediately in 2020, finishing the season with three 100-yard performances in the Broncos’ last four games. Among conference running backs with at least 100 carries, Jefferson ended up fourth in the MAC with 624 total rushing yards and 5.57 yards per carry.
FS A.J. Thomas
2021 will mark Thomas’s fourth year as a starter on the Broncos defense and, if he follows his career path with more incremental improvements across the board, he could be an all-conference player by year’s end. While playing more as a linebacker, he finished second on the defense with 46 tackles last year and led the team with nine tackles for loss. That they feel comfortable moving Thomas back to safety tells you a lot about the confidence WMU has in his abilities.
WR Skyy Moore
D’Wayne Eskridge was the big name among WMU’s pass catchers in 2020, but Moore should be more than capable of picking up the slack. After all, two years ago he, not Eskridge, was the program’s first true freshman wide receiver to get named to the all-MAC first team and he caught 25 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns last fall. Moore will be dangerous no matter who is lining up across from him.
DL Ali Fayad
When the Broncos have needed a big play from its pass rush over the last three seasons, Fayad has been the man most likely to deliver one. The senior from Dearborn, Michigan has led WMU in sacks over that period of time and he also led in tackles for loss back in 2018 and 2019, all while moving from role to role in the front seven. San Jose State’s sturdy offensive line has been very good at keeping Nick Starkel on his feet, but Fayad could still pose a problem every now and then.
All gas, baby: In 2020, Western Michigan finished fourth in the FBS ranks in averaging 7.44 yards per play, sixth in points per drive earned, and 28th in offensive SP+. With few holes to plug, they seem like a great candidate to defy regression and remain as potent as ever.
Eleby, Jefferson and Moore provide the backbone for the Broncos offense but, make no mistake, they are loaded. Sophomore Sean Tyler and former Nevada running back Jaxson Kincaide both averaged over 6.5 yards per carry last fall, while junior receiver Jaylen Hall somehow managed seven touchdowns and 26.9 yards per catch on just 12 receptions (and he’s averaged 20 yards per catch in his college career).
The offensive line will also return four starters, including two-time all-conference center Mike Caliendo, to a unit that comprised one of the stingiest lines in the Group of 5.
No brakes, baby: Western Michigan knew how to create havoc but gave up 17 plays of 30 or more yards, a rate surpassed by just Fresno State and UNLV among teams who played in six or fewer games, and ranked 103rd in the country in points per drive allowed. Continuity should help them here, too, but there’s plenty of work to be done.
Fayad and defensive tackle Ralph Holley are preseason darlings in the eyes of the folks over at Pro Football Focus, but the continued development of youngsters like sophomore Braden Fiske (23 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) and redshirt freshman Marshawn Kneeland (22 tackles, 2.5 sacks) could make them the strongest defensive line in the MAC.
If there’s one thing that could definitely help the Broncos turn the corner, though, it’s more production from the secondary. WMU defended 17 passes in 2020 but had just two interceptions and, outside of a season-opening romp against hapless Akron, didn’t really do much to suggest they could stop opponents from moving the ball through the air. Thomas’s move to safety, where he’ll tandem with first-team all-MAC selection Bricen Garner, and the return of Pitt transfer Therran Coleman from injury should help.
One way or another, this will be a must-watch game between two strong conference title contenders. Both teams should be able to score points but, on paper, the Spartans seem more likely to stop the Broncos in a critical situation on defense than the other way around. That could be all it takes in a game that should be very close no matter how it unfolds.
San Jose State 42, Western Michigan 38