A Western Michigan football team has never before tread the hallowed turf of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Saturday’s Week 1 matchup between the Broncos and No. 4-ranked USC marks the first meeting in any venue between the two programs.
But then, the unknown has been the norm for Western Michigan in the last calendar year.
Saturday’s visit to the Coliseum does indeed mark a milestone for the Western Michigan program, trekking from Kalamazoo to Los Angeles for this unique matchup. Once the Broncos arrive in Southern California, head coach Tim Lester faces one of his first big decisions while in the City of Angels.
“You make the decision when you travel, do you go look at the stadium beforehand,” Lester said. “Is the stadium going to be too big for them or anything like that? We’re fortunate in that a lot of these guys have played in big venues before and they like that.”
One of the big venues to which Lester refers is AT&T Stadium, site of the Broncos’ most recent game and another historic first for Western Michigan football. Playing in the 2017 Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin capped a remarkable season, one in which the Broncos reached heights never before seen at WMU: the first Top 25 ranking, the first undefeated regular season and the first trip to a top-tier postseason game.
Kicking off 2017 in another renowned venue against a different upper echelon program is another marquee moment in Western Michigan football history.
“They’re excited about it,” Lester said. “I don’t know if they understand how awesome the Coliseum is. I had a chance to play there once. I’ve been informing them how special of a place it is.”
Lester was a member of the XFL’s Chicago Enforcers in 2001. Their lone season ended in a33-16 playoff loss at the Coliseum to the Los Angeles Xtreme.
His new team seeks a more favorable result this time around, and it will need an unprecedented performance to leave Los Angeles with a win. Knocking off the No. 4 team in the country would go down as yet another first in Western Michigan history, and will take a near-flawless game against a lineup Lester touted from offensive line to receivers to defense.
And, of course, the Broncos head coach had high praise for the face of college football’s 2017 offseason, USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
“Me being a quarterback guy, I’m a huge fan of Sam,” Lester said. “Last year as quarterbacks coach at Purdue, he was one of my favorites in the country.”
“Little did I know I’d be facing him in eight months,” he added, underscoring yet another of the firsts awaiting the Broncos on Saturday.
For this next, upcoming milestone, the Broncos will take the field for the first time without quarterback Zach Terrell, wide receiver Corey Davis and head coach P.J. Fleck, the latter of whom Lester was hired to replace in the offseason.
Fleck accepted the head coaching position at Minnesota, taking his “Row the Boat” slogan to the Big Ten and opening up an opportunity for Western Michigan alum Lester to return home.
Fittingly, this is Lester’s first head coaching gig at the Division I level.
Despite the turnover both on the roster and the sideline, Western Michigan isn’t going into Saturday’s game completely without the experience from last year’s historic run.
Running back Jarvion Franklin was a dynamo in 2016, rushing for 1,353 yards with 12 touchdowns, and catching 25 passes for another 288 yards with two scores.
Along with electric change-of-pace back Jamauri Bogan, who rushed for almost 1,000 yards in 2016, the Broncos have proven stability in the run game, as new quarterback Jon Wassink takes the reins from Terrell.
“When you look at a team … the first thing you ask is, ‘Who’s their quarterback?’ And your second question is, ‘Do they have a running game that can help that quarterback?’ ” Lester said. ” ‘Can they protect (the quarterback) and not put him in too many tough situations?’
“We’re fortunate to have a lot of experience (on the offensive line),” he continued. “And we have three running backs that have carried the ball a lot at this level.”
In a year marked with unprecedented moments, Western Michigan’s known commodities will be its greatest assets faced with a first-time challenge at USC.
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