2-0, y'all. That's the Gophers record after two games, and that's exactly where we thought they'd be. So it's time to look ahead to Western Michigan; a game that many have thought for quite awhile was the first big test for the Gophers.
Brandon Fitzsimmons was good enough to answer some questions about the upcoming game. Brandon writes for SB Nation's MAC blog, Hustle Belt, where he goes by the name "Brown and Gold." He also has a Western Michigan specific blog called Saddle Up, Fight On. Check out both for more insight on Western Michigan.
JDMill: Tell us what the expectations were like for WMU heading into the 2012 season. Where were the Broncos expected to finish in the MAC? How do their first two games (a loss to Illinois, a win over Eastern Illinois) stack up compared to the expectations.
Brandon Fitzsimmons: Expectations were, and are, pretty high. After last season's success, then falter, then some success, we really expect to be a contender in the MAC. With NIU losing Chandler "Mr. Irrelevant 2012" Harnish, and Toledo losing both Tim Beckman and Eric Page, WMU loses their receiving corps, but little else. They switched to a 3-3-5 defense so MAC Defense POTY Drew Nowak wasn't as big a loss now, and the schedule is very friendly. An 8-4 year would be considered the low end of average here.
After the first two games, there is little deviation from those expectations. The Illinois game, which was winnable, was lost by offensive mistakes. That was very surprising. However, the EIU game really helped silence those doubts, so this weekend's game will be a huge test to see if things shored up.
JD: Turnovers killed WMU against Illinois (3 INT's, 1 fumble lost). Outside of turnovers (and the score) the rest of the stat sheet was pretty even between the two teams. Does the turnover stat tell the whole story or did WMU fall short in other areas that the Illini took advantage of?
BF: Turnovers pretty much tell the story. One of the INT's was a Pick-6 to put the game out of reach. Another one was a drive killer. There were too many dropped passes, and the fumble was just baffling. The defensive play by WMU though was a very pleasant surprise, and the offense just underperformed. Badly.
JD: WMU also had 4 turnovers against Eastern Illinois, this time flipping the script with just 1 INT, but 3 fumbles. What gives with all of the turnovers?
BF: Ok. Let me check on those turnovers. *checks game review* The INT was garbage time for Carder as he tried to roll out of the pocket and pad his stats. Bad throw, didn't matter, oh well. One fumble was a "muffed" punt that scraped the side of one of the blockers on a punt. That led to the only EIU TD in the 2nd half. Another fumble happened in the first after Carder got rocked on a read option play. THAT led to a TD too! The last fumble was on the 4 yard line (are you kidding me!?!), in the 3rd quarter though. So 3 turnovers in the 2nd half, after the game was out of reach.
Why do we have 8 turnovers in 2 games? Why does Carder have 4 INTs in 2 games? I don't know. Carder did have 6 turnovers in the Pizza Bowl, so he is very human...
JD: Including negative yards for sacks against Illinois (Carder had -31 yards rushing... to which I AGAIN ask why does the NCAA add sacks to rushing numbers?), the Broncos has -6 yards rushing. Does this stat say more about the Broncos running game, or Illinois' rushing defense?
BF: Yeah, I hate that stat too. Anyways, the Illinois front 4 is monstrous. Our run defense isn't that great. Ergo, negative rushing. For some reason, we can't run well at all. Our running backs are good (see EIU game), but they need holes. Our line can pass block decently, even up against Illinois, so that is their strength. Just watch out for Illinois.
JD: When we hear about Western Michigan, we hear about Alex Carder, and for good reason. He's put up over 3,300 yards each of the past two seasons and completes nearly 65% of his passes. WMU throws the ball... a lot (94 passes vs just 65 rushes so far this season). Even in destroying Eastern Illinois the Broncos threw the ball (46 times) as much as they ran it (47 times). Tell us the truth... is Carder THAT good, or are the numbers skewed because the Broncos offense is so pass happy?
BF: Both. His numbers are probably skewed because he had Jordan White to throw to in his first two seasons, and we love to pass. A lot. However, he is talented. He is a dual-threat at times, and can make plays with his legs if he needs to. That said, I'm not a Carder fan. His decision making scares me. He has just 1 game-winning drive in his career, and is a turnover machine at times. You never know who you are going to get. 2011 Toledo Carder (548 passing yards, 7 TDs, 0 INTS, 1 rushing TD)? Or 2011 Pizza Bowl Carder (4 INTs, 2 Fumbles [one of which was on the potential game-winning drive])? If he got that down, he would be unstoppable. Hands down.
JD: Jaime Wilson leads the Broncos in receptions (19) and TD's (3) as a freshman. He's not a big dude (5'11", 196lbs), so what's the secret? Speed? Good hands? Clean living?
BF: I call this the "Jordan White complex". Mid-level height with decent speed, great hands, and impeccable route running. Wilson was a steal apparently from the recruiting circles I've heard, and has been the next White in our offense. With Eric Monette under-performing/banged up, and Josh Schafer disappearing from our offense, the young guys and tight ends have to step up. Wilson has.
JD: Another question on the people Carder throws to. Outside of Wilson, Carder has completed a pass to 12 other players. So what is the steam on this passing attack? Is Wilson the main guy and everyone else gets the crumbs? Or is this a spread the ball around attack?
BF: As stated above, I think Wilson is Carder's new Jordan White. White was Carder's "out" whenever he got into trouble or needed to make a play. He still likes to try and spread the ball around. Justin Collins is a big dude with big catch ability. Blake Hammond is a huge TE that caught a pair of TD passes last weekend. It really just depends on Carder's mood I guess.
JD: I can't find anything in WMU's stats that gives me reason to be nervous about the Broncos rushing attack, but the stat sheet is the only thing I'm looking at. Who (singular or plural) should the Gophers be nervous about running the ball on them?
BF: Carder makes a couple plays with his feet, but isn't THAT much of a threat. If the Broncos can get run blocking down, Tevin Drake and Brian Fields will rush all over TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. Anything to open up the passing game, we will do. Daniel Braverman also has excellent speed, so anything in the form of an end-around would probably be his.
JD: Talk to us about the defense. As far as teams with offensive fire power, WMU hasn't exactly played Oregon or USC yet, but the Broncos are giving up over 22 pts/game, including giving up an average of 12 points in the 1st quarter. What is the story with the slow starts by the Broncos defense? Is there a trend here that you think Gopher coaches may be looking to exploit? Also, give us a couple of players to keep an eye out for on defense.
BF: The Bronco defense has actually played very well outside of the 1st quarter. Keep in mind, they surrendered 17 points to Illinois (the last TD was a pick-6), and then shut down EIU after the 14-point 1st quarter, allowing a 5 yard TD drive after a muffed punt. So 7 decent points in 90 minutes of play after 24 in the first 30. I call that a win. They make changes and really have shut teams down after those first 15 minutes.
As far as players go, Lewis Toler and Donald Celiscar both are aggressive CBs that have played excellent so far. Toler recorded his first two INTs since 2010 after being avoided last year, and Celiscar has an INT against Illinois, and 5 passes defended against EIU. Johnnie Simon led the nation in tackles after week one with an astonishing 18, but was rarely seen against EIU after adjustments put him off the field to accommodate the dime formation we threw out there. Freddie Bishop, Paul Hazel, and Terry Easmon all will disrupt things in the box as a DE, hybrid, and LB combo in our 3-3-5.
JD: Look, we already know that WMU is going to try to throw all over TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. Outside of the passing attack, is there another area of the game that the Broncos think they can exploit in order to beat the Gophers?
BF: Special teams maybe. Wilson returned 3 punts last weekend, but had returns of 37 and 48 yards. He was a possessed man out there. Our kicker and punter are both new, so that's all I can really go with. Braverman's speed might be shown on kick-offs. That's about it.
JD: As of writing these questions (Tuesday afternoon), the Gophers are favored by 2.5 points, which essentially means that Vegas gives the Gophers an edge for playing at home, otherwise it's a pick 'em. What is your prediction for the game?
BF: I have to go with my Broncos. Why wouldn't I? If the boys can weather the 1st quarter storm, and continue their offensive success, why not pick them? This is probably our most winnable BCS game of the season (@Illinois, vs UConn next week) and our coaches know Jerry Kill. The key will be the rushing games. If we can continue to hold down the run, and establish our own run game, there is no reason to think this couldn't be WMU's game. WMU can stop the pass, and can throw for days, but the rushing attacks will be the key. WMU - 38, Minn - 28.