Road Warriors From Kalamazoo

By at August 27, 2008 | 12:00 AM | Print

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Directional school. Twenty years ago, in college football, it might as well have been a curse word. And losing to one? Guys dropped their Sunday morning toast right onto the newspaper when they saw the box score.

But television, great beacon of democracy that it is, has leveled the playing field to the point where a team like Western Michigan – which happens to be Nebraska’s season-opening foe Saturday night – waltzes right into a joint like Iowa on Senior Day, tugs on a Hawkeye’s cape, spits into the wind, and messes with Kirk Ferentz to the tune of a 28-19 victory.

Thing is – nobody’s surprised by it anymore. And the “directionals” aren’t scared.

“I don’t think we’ll be intimidated,” senior cornerback E.J. Biggers said. “We have our senior class out there, and these things, we’ve been doing them every year since I’ve been here.”

Yes, every year. Not always with such great results – WMU was blasted by West Virginia (62-24) and Missouri(52-24), despite putting up its share of points – but always with the same mindset: There’s a chance, especially if the first half breaks go the Broncos’ way, if the crowd falls to a murmur and if the host team gets a little down. Ask Ball State, which nearly stole a win from NU in 2007. Ask Southern Mississippi, which did steal a win in Memorial Stadium in 2004.

And Western Michigan is no particular slouch, despite a 5-7 record last year. WMU is easily the strongest of Nebraska’s first three opponents, if breathing Virginia Tech’s rarefied air. Thirteen senior starters. A returning quarterback and running back. A nice-sized offensive line. Two defensive ends in Greg Marshall and Zach Davidson who could play just about anywhere.

“You watch them against Iowa last year and they wreaked some havoc,” NU coach Bo Pelini said. “We feel pretty good about our tackles, so we like the match-up there, but they are good football players."

Said Husker quarterback Joe Ganz: “We’re not taking Western Michigan lightly. We’re not overlooking them. We’re not thinking, oh they’re a MAC school; we’re not doing that at all. This game is the Super Bowl to us really, and we’ve got to approach it like that. It’s a huge statement game for us.”

WMU coach Bill Cubit knows a bit about how it’ll look on Saturday; he was on Larry Smith’s Missouri staff in 2000. He knows about the friendliness of the fans, the crowd noise, the tunnel walk, those giant video boards Smith always hated so much.

“All you’ll see is red all over the place and hopefully about 200 of our black and gold people sitting out there,” Cubit joked.

But he’s been there, done that. Besides 2007, WMU played at Virginia in 2006 and won. Took Florida State down to its last drive in 2006, too. And Cubit’s been at enough big-name schools – Mizzou and Florida are two of them – to know his way around big-game atmosphere.

He’s not so sure, though, just what he’ll see from Pelini. Cubit said they’ve watched the Ball State tape from last year to get a grasp on personnel and watched some of Pelini’s work as defensive coordinator with schemes. But it’s still a stab in the dark, whereas Pelini can watch a whole season of WMU and know, largely, what to expect.

“It’s probably going to be a little bit of a cat and mouse game in the first quarter,” Cubit said.

With a little smash-mouth football mixed in. Cubit fully plans to see NU line up and bully the Broncos back to Kalamazoo, their hometown.

“Just come out and pound us,” Cubit said, adding that Nebraska’s recruited well in recent years while “we got a bunch of two-star guys.”

How’s that for playing the Lou Holtz card?

The Skinny on the Broncos

2007 Record: 5-7

Coach: Bill Cubit (20-16 overall)

Conference: MAC

Offense: Multiple spread attack that will keep quarterback Tim Hiller in the shotgun for most of the snaps, although the Broncos do flash some power formations. Expect the usual buffet of spread offense plays: Short screens, zone reads, wide receiver carries, play action out of the shotgun. The aim, as always is create pockets of space for athletes to roam around and make plays in.

WMU ran the ball more than Nebraska did last season, but with less efficiency (3.4 yards per carry). Instead, the Broncos use the pass to score their points, averaging 267 yards per game. Hiller started every game last year, throwing for 3,021 yards and 20 touchdowns. His primary target is 6-foot-2, 234-pound Jamarko Simmons, who set a school record with 84 catches for 980 yards and six touchdowns. Simmons is an athletic possession receiver whom WMU will look for inside an opponent's 20-yard line. Tight end Branden Ledbetter (38 catches, 550 yards 6 TDs) is another big target. Watch for smaller receivers in Schneider Julien and Juan Nunez to stretch the field with their speed.

At running back, junior Brandon West is the typical shifty, slippery type you usually find at non-BCS programs. He can be tough to locate amidst a giant (albeit young) offensive line that boasts an average size of 6-foot-4, 310 pounds.

One other thing: If 2007 is any indication, WMU goes for it on fourth down at least twice a game. Watch for that.

Defense: A 4-3 scheme using a smallish group of players who get by on speed and athleticism. The strength, clearly, is the secondary, where all four starters return and all are seniors. The best of them, cornerbacks Londen Fryar (son of NU receiver Irving Fryar) and E.J Biggers , have good speed and decent size. As a unit, these defensive backs could easily play in a BCS conference and hold up quite well.

The front seven is a slightly different matter. Outside of two decent defensive ends in Greg Marshall (11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks) and Zach Davidson (12.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks), WMU enjoys what you might call "bad experience," giving up 4.6 yards per rush in 2007 and 179 rushing yards per game. Did an opening-season contest with West Virginia skew that number a little? Probably. But not that much.

Special Teams: In 2007, The Broncos mirrored Nebraska: Good coverage teams, so-so return teams. In 2008, they'll have another weakness: True freshman kicker John Potter. Memorial Stadium isn't the best first-game environment. The Broncos have historically been good at blocking kicks and punts, but didn't have any last year.

Key stat: WMU isn't terribly efficient inside the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 54 percent of the time in 2007. Nebraska, by contrast, scored TDs 75% of the time. It speaks to the Broncos inability to bowl over a defense. But – WMU also held its opponents to touchdowns 54% of the time in the red zone. If you keep track of a statistic, look there.

Final facts: WMU has almost 30 players from Florida and Georgia…quarterback Tim Hiller is from Orrville, Ohio, home of legendary basketball coach Bob Knight…receivers coach Mike Grant played as quarterback at Nebraska, starting games in 1990 and 1992.

Photo: Western Michigan University