This year the SERVEPRO First Responder Bowl matchup between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers of Conference USA and the Western Michigan Broncos of the Mid-American Conference will feature a team that relies heavily on the run game and one that does a great job at stopping the run.
This will be the 15th match-up between the two programs, with Western Michigan riding a three-game winning streak — the last game being a 38-0 win in 1947.
For the Hilltoppers, this bowl game is a nice reward for a successful first season under head coach Tyson Helton. Helton served as the offensive coordinator in 2014-15 and is returning to Bowling Green, KY, after spending time as the quarterback coach at USC (2016-17) and the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2018. The signature win of the season for Helton was the 45-19 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks, where the Hilltoppers rushed for over 250 yards, forced two turnovers, and limited Arkansas to only 87 yards passing.
The Broncos travel to Texas bitter and frustrated as the 17-14 loss to Northern Illinois cost the team a shot in the MAC championship. If head coach Tim Lester can motivate his team to finish strong, this will could be the catalyst for a successful 2020.
Players to Know
DeAngelo Malone Defensive End
Malone is the crucial component of the Hilltoppers defense. He led the team with 17.5 tackles-for-loss and 11.5 sacks and should be the focal point of the offensive gameplan for Western Michigan. The gaudy numbers will attract attention from the NFL, but he must prove he can do it when it matters the most. In the four Western Kentucky losses, Malone only registered 1.5 sacks.
Gaej Walker Running Back
The redshirt sophomore made the most of an expanded role in the WKU offense 1,115 yards and eight touchdowns. Walker finished the season with seven 100-yard seasons, including 129 yards on 23 carries in the upset win over Arkansas. With the WKU passing game being inconsistent this season, Walker will be called on to carry the offense versus the Broncos.
Lucky Jackson Wide Receiver
The quarterback play may not have been the best, but it was not for lack of weapons. Jackson teamed with Jahcour Pearson to form an exciting receiving duo for the Hilltoppers. While Pearson finished 2019 with more touchdowns, Jackson was the big-play receiver as he led the team with 77 catches for 985 yards.
LeVante Bellamy Running Back
After rushing for 1,412 yards and 23 touchdowns, Bellamy was named the most outstanding player in the MAC. This is the second consecutive 1,000-yard season for the fifth-year senior. In the Broncos biggest win of the season, a 57-10 win over the Georgia State Panthers, Bellamy rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns. The success or failure for the Broncos will rest on the broad shoulders of the Indianapolis, IN native.
John Wassink Quarterback
When Bellamy isn’t running the ball, WMU is relying on Wassink to keep the offense moving, and in 2019, he did an excellent job of that as he passed for 2,094 yards and 19 touchdowns. He may not be the most accurate passer — only completing 59% of his passes, but when Wassink has time, he can take advantage of an opposing defense that is looking to slow down the Broncos rush offense.
Ali Fayad Defensive End
Fayad led WMU in sacks with 6.5 and forced fumbles with four, and the Broncos will need him to play to that level if they are planning on slowing down the potent WKU offense.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
Keep the offense balanced: WKU quarterback Ty Storey has shown the ability to throw the ball around — four games with over 250 yards passing, including a 380-yard game versus FIU — but the Hilltoppers play better when they can run the ball.
Malone must be unleashed: As previously stated, Malone tends to disappear when it matters, so if he can register at least two sacks and a handful of pressures, it will make things easier for the rest of the WKU defense to force the Broncos into turnovers.
Do not let Bellamy beat them: Bellamy is a talented back that has the big-play ability to win the game by himself. The Hilltoppers may not be able to stop him completely, but if they can contain him to under 100 yards, it will go a long way to securing the victory.
Wassink has to be more precise: The talented quarterback had a very good 2019, but he must show that he can complete the tough passes when it matters the most. If he can up his completion percentage to at least 64%, it will go a long way in the Broncos pulling off the upset.
The Skyy cannot be the limit for WMU: True freshman Skyy Moore may not be as talented as the two WKU receivers, but if the Broncos are to pull off the upset, he must come up big. Moore finished the year with 47 catches for 734 yards — including a four reception 162-yards performance versus Ohio.
Fayaad has to match Malone: Like the other talented pass rusher in the game, Fayaad has to make sure that Western Kentucky feels his impact all afternoon.
Whoever runs the ball the most effective has the best chance at victory, and because of the balance of its offense, I think Western Kentucky gets the job done. Western Kentucky 38 Western Michigan 27