BOISE — BYU and Western Michigan have played one common opponent this season — Northern Illinois.
While the Cougars fell to the eventual Mid-American Conference champions at home, 7-6, the Broncos beat NIU 28-21 at home in their regular-season finale.
BYU and Western Michigan meet in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Friday (2 p.m. MST, ESPN) at Albertsons Stadium.
“They beat a team that we lost to,” said Cougar coach Kalani Sitake. “In their last game they beat Northern Illinois, so that’s a good matchup for us.”
After opening the season with back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Michigan, Western Michigan (7-5) won six consecutive games. Then, in a 51-24 loss to Toledo, junior quarterback Jon Wassink suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Wassink was replaced by 18-year-old freshman Kaleb Eleby, a three-star recruit from Missouri. Eleby lost his first two starts against Ohio (59-14) and Ball State (42-41).
Following the setback to Ball State, Western Michigan coach Tim Lester fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust. The Broncos had surrendered 152 points in their previous three games, and Lester replaced Daoust with defensive line coach Lou Esposito, who was named the interim defensive coordinator for the remainder of the season.
Against Northern Illinois, Western Michigan looked like a different team. Under its new defensive coordinator, the inspired Broncos limited the Huskies to 262 yards of total offense in the win.
Bronco running back Jamauri Bogan scored two touchdowns, including the game-winning 1-yard run with 1:36 remaining. Eleby completed 19 of 35 passes for 285 yards, and he ran for a 2-yard touchdown.
It’s regarded as Lester’s biggest victory in his two-year tenure in Kalamazoo.
"Obviously, when I made the change (in defensive coordinator), it was hard on the guys," Lester said. “They were shocked at first, and then they bound together, and we talked about making a change. I think we're a good football team, but that's not good enough. We need to be a great football team, so something needed to change. I challenged everyone to change something. I changed practice around, I changed anything I could, I changed what shirt I wore underneath my travel gear. We were all changing something, and they changed the way they played. It looked different, I think. The energy felt good, and they were flying around, launching themselves around, and I thought they did a really good job."
Like Western Michigan, BYU went through changes this season, including at quarterback, as freshman Zach Wilson replaced Tanner Mangum. Wilson lit up Hawaii for 49 points in his debut as a starter but he struggled against NIU in his second start.
Wilson completed 18 of 30 for 208 yards against the Huskies. Wilson was sacked five times and he threw an interception with less than two minutes remaining. The Cougars made two field goals but missed a 51-yarder.
Western Michigan was able to score points against Northern Illinois’ stout defense, something the Cougars (6-6) were unable to do.
“They’re a well-coached team. They’re tough. It’s going to be a good battle,” Sitake said of the Broncos. “I’m expecting a physical game. We have to match their physicality. Our guys are ready for the challenge.”
The Broncos’ leading rusher is junior LeVante Bellamy, who has gained 1,172 yards and six touchdowns on 190 attempts. Freshman wide receiver Jayden Reed has caught 56 passes for 797 yards and eight TDs. In four games, Eleby has completed 72 of 111 passes for 917 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Western Michigan’s offense averages 33 points per game. Meanwhile, the Bronco defense surrenders 33 points per game.
“It’s a very sound defense that does a good job of stopping the run. They have an active front and an aggressive secondary,” said BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. “They made a change in terms of who their play-caller is for the last game. That gives a little bit less information than we would normally have. There’s not a big difference, but there’s some subtle changes that would affect how they play certain personnel groups.”
Lester said his team faces a big challenge against the Cougars.18 comments on this story
"Offensively, they have a freshman quarterback like us, and they're figuring out who they are on offense. We know they're huge up front and are going to run inside zone and pin-and-pull and take shots on us," Lester said. "They haven't gotten in rhythm a ton, but when they get in rhythm, they have talent. Defensively, they're stout as heck. Their scoring numbers are the same as Northern (Illinois). You're going to earn everything you get against them. You're not going to push the line of scrimmage around a bunch. They played a 7-6 game against Northern, and Wisconsin lined up and said, 'Here we come, we're going to be Wisconsin,' and you're not going to move those guys, not even with the Wisconsin offensive line. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge and a lot like our last game (against Northern Illinois).”
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Cougars on the air
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Friday, 2 p.m. MST, Albertsons Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM