Western Michigan's offense has received a fair amount of credit for the Broncos' success this season but over the last three games people are taking note of their tough, physical and athletic defensive unit.
Six weeks into the 2008 season, Western Michigan is fifth in the Mid-American Conference in total defense, giving up an average of 363.3 yards per game. That number is 36 yards fewer than what the Broncos allowed a year ago.
Not only is Western Michigan one of the top defensive teams in the MAC, but the Broncos also rank in the top five in scoring defense with an average of 21.8 points a game. While the offense has put up its share of points -- the Broncos are second in the MAC in scoring and total offense -- Western Michigan is one win away from becoming bowl eligible because of the strides it has made defensively.
"We still have a lot of room for improvement," said Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, "but we're getting better."
Scheme-wise there's nothing elaborate about Western Michigan -- it runs a basic 4-3 -- but it is experienced across the board with 10 seniors and one junior in the starting lineup. Led by senior free safety Louis Delmas, the team leader in tackles, and defensive end Justin Braska, who paces the team in sacks, the Broncos have allowed 16.3 points in three MAC games.
But the University at Buffalo (2-3, 1-1), averaging 27.5 points in two league games, will present a challenge when the two teams play at 3:30 p.m., Saturday at UB Stadium (1230 AM, TWC 13).
"They execute their schemes very, very well," said UB coach Turner Gill. "They have all 11 guys who do a pretty good job of doing what they're supposed to do, protecting the gaps that they have to protect and then they run to the football. They have pretty good speed in the secondary. They're playing well together as a unit."
Several different factors have helped Western Michigan make a strong impression on the defensive side of the ball. One of those factors has been the unit's depth up front and at linebacker.
"Up front we had played five defensive tackles; we had never had that before," Cubit said. "We played four defensive ends in the heat of the battle. We're playing four linebackers. . . . So you can see it up front in the defensive line play. We played nine in a crucial part in the game, which we've never been able to do before. And it keeps them fresh. I think one guy played over 35 plays."
The quality depth was unexpected. Initially, Cubit thought he'd play a three-man rotation at defensive tackle with seniors Nick Varcadipane, Cory Flom, and junior Cory Cielenski but true freshman Drew Nowak and sophomore Chris Pyant performed well in training camp and warranted playing time.
"Cielenski, you want to get him in the pass-rush mode, and Pyant and Flom are more in the run mode," Cubit said. "I didn't think we'd be as good as we are."
Two seasons ago Western Michigan had a stout defense, but Cubit admits the Broncos didn't face many teams that presented much of a challenge offensively. They had high expectations coming into last season but played teams better equipped to handle their swarming defense and the Broncos finished 5-7.
"Our confidence went down," Cubit said. "We're playing with a little more confidence, even though we got off to a bad start early in the year."
They allowed 104 points against Nebraska, Northern Illinois and Idaho but over the last three games, the Broncos have become dominant. In wins over Tennessee Tech, Temple and Ohio, Western Michigan has allowed just 30 points. Cubit said the Temple game was a telltale sign of how good the defense could be.
"In the Temple game, on offense, we didn't play very well," said Cubit of the 7-3 win over the Owls. "[The defense] had a lot of pressure on them and had to play well or else we lose the football game because we were so inept on offense. That game was a good measuring stick and how they reacted."
Last week, Ohio converted just 7 of 18 third downs and the Broncos held quarterback Boo Jackson, who piled up 413 yards of total offense against Central Michigan, to 165.
"We have a lot of older kids and they've fought through it pretty well," Cubit said. "We can get better."