Miami braces for Western Michigan’s offensive fireworks

Jordan Howden of Minnesota (left) tackles Maurice Thomas of Miami on the opening kickoff return of the game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Jordan Howden of Minnesota (left) tackles Maurice Thomas of Miami on the opening kickoff return of the game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

There are explosive offenses. Then there’s what Western Michigan has been putting on the field for the first four games of the college football season.

The Broncos, in their second season under coach Tim Lester, go into their Mid-American Conference opener at Miami on Saturday leading the conference with averages of 471 yards of total offense and 225 yards of rushing offense. Led by a pair of juniors, running back LaVante Bellamy and quarterback Jon Wassink, Western Michigan also ranks third in the conference in scoring with an average of 36.8 points per game.

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The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Bellamy leads the MAC with an average of 97.2 rushing yards per game and ranks second with an average of 130.all-purpose yards, just ahead of another junior, wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, who is averaging 130.0 all-purpose yards per game, which also is his conference-leading average receiving yards per game. Wassink ranks second with an average of 246.0 passing yards per game.

Count Miami coach Chuck Martin among the impressed.

“Their stats are mind-boggling,” the fifth-year Redhawks coach said during Monday’s media session. “They’re averaging 9.85 yards per play in their No. 1 formation. They have a tremendous tailback. He’s a game-breaker. He’s capable of breaking off a big run every week. He creates distance. Their big-play tape had a like 48 plays. Their offense is pretty simple, but they can score so quickly.

“Their defense is sound. They move guys around to give you different looks.”

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The Broncos also lead the MAC with an average of 31.4 yards per punt return. Sophomore Tryon Arnett is first individually, averaging 32.0 yards per return, followed at No. 2 by freshman Jayden Reed.

Western Michigan, 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the MAC West last season and projected in a pre-season MAC media poll to finish third again, opened with losses of 55-42 to Syracuse in Kalamazoo and 49-3 at Michigan before romping past Delaware State, a Football Bowl Subdivision-team, 68-0 and winning last Saturday, 34-25, at Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference.

“Their schedule is weird,” Martin said. “They’ve played two games against two dominant teams and two against smaller teams. They haven’t played any opponent similar to themselves.”

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The RedHawks are coming off a 38-23 win at Bowling Green in which they set a season-high with 289 rushing yards. While Martin didn’t minimize the confidence that should come from logging the season’s first win, he cautioned against complacency.

“We got our rushing game going against a team that gives up a lot of yards,” he pointed out. “We still have some questions marks, but at least we ran the ball. The biggest thing was getting over the mental hurdles. We created our own energy. We want to run the ball a lot more. We want to be more balanced.”

Fifth-year senior Alonzo Smith also wouldn’t mind seeing Miami put more emphasis on the running game, especially after he gained 164 yards on 19 carries against the Falcons. The RedHawks ran the ball 52 times while senior quarterback Gus Ragland attempted only 15 passes.

A ball-possessing, time-consuming ground game also would help neutralize the Western Michigan offense.

“I think we’ll be fine, as long as we come out with an aggressive mindset, like we did last week,” said Smith, the MAC East Offensive Player of the Week. “We’re feeling mostly confident. Establishing the run helps the passing game. We know how to win now. We have to do a better job of pushing the pace.”

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