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July 14, 2009

Opponent Preview: Western Michigan defense

Western Michigan's defense allowed 24.9 points per game last year and 395.3 yards per contest. The good news is only four starters return and the bad news is only four starters return, including first-team All-MAC linebacker Austin Pritchard …

"They have some proven guys that they can look to for leadership," Kalamazoo Gazette beat writer Graham Couch said. "[Senior] Austin Pritchard is a big, rangy linebacker that could have played at a BCS school. He will be the anchor of that defense, and combined with [sophomore] Mitch Zajac really gives Western a very good linebacking corps."

Zajac (6-1, 220) was named to the All-MAC Freshman Team in 2008 after recording 29 tackles. He started each of the final five games. Pritchard (6-4, 233) listed second among Bronco defenders with 86 stops, including 12.5 for loss.

"In today's game, against the spread and wide-open offenses, you really only need two linebackers but you need them to be pretty special and these two guys are," Couch said.

Despite the presence of safety Louis Delmas - a second-round NFL draft pick - and two more NFL-camp invitees, WMU's secondary yielded 254.9 passing yards per game (102nd nationally) and 21 touchdowns. However, Couch cites the lack of pressure up front as a detrimental factor in the secondary's final product.

"It wasn't a great unit but wasn't as bad as its numbers indicate either," Couch said. "They really struggled on third down but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that they couldn't rush the passer."

Though the loss of four starters is severe, Western is confident in sophomore cornerback David Lewis (5-10, 170) and junior safeties Mario Armstrong (6-0, 188) and Doug Wiggins (6-0, 180).

"David Lewis was every bit as good as the two cornerbacks they had last year but he broke his arm early in the season against Idaho," Couch said. "He's not very big, but he's not intimidated.

"Their safeties could be really good. Doug Wiggins is an interesting story. He is the most heralded recruit in Bill Cubit's [five-year] tenure and maybe ever for Western. He was a four-star recruit from North Miami Beach and he narrowed his final two down to Miami and Western Michigan. He went to Miami because of Randy Shannon but didn't really like it and transferred up here.

"He hasn't played in a few years so you're really not 100 percent sure how good he'll be but he's a talent and the coaches just rave about him."

Though only two starters return up front, four defensive linemen have extensive experience and combined for 100 tackles, 23 for loss and 12 sacks in 2008. The front four, consisting of junior end Justin Braska (6-4, 234), senior tackle Cody Cielenski (6-2, 280), sophomore Drew Nowak (6-4, 250) and sophomore Weston Peiffer (6-4, 245), lacks ideal size, however, and is an area of concern.

"They have depth but the biggest difference between the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten, or any other major conference, is the defensive line," Couch said. "There are just so many big and skilled bodies out there and it's hard to get those guys to come to a place like Western Michigan.

"You look at Cody Cielenski and Justin Braska … they're both high-motor, energy guys, but they're undersized. The true story of David vs. Goliath is these matchups along the line of scrimmage."

With an underwhelming defense, at least for now as the young, inexperienced performers grow into their positions, Western will likely have to score some points to have any chance at beating Michigan (for our offensive preview click here).

"I do think they can score and we'll just have to see how much they'll have to score," Couch said. "The games they've lost in openers the past few years they've given up 50 and 60 points, and while I'd never underestimate Cubit's offense, you can't expect them to beat Michigan if they give up 50 [Sept. 5].

"The thing I like about this game, is that Cubit isn't stubborn. He'll take a win anyway he can get it. When they beat Virginia 17-10 [in 2006] they did it with a steady running game. They were down to their backup quarterback and he threw for only 40 yards but that didn't matter because Cubit was willing to play the ball-control, defensive-minded game.

"But I don't think this team will struggle offensively like that because of [senior quarterback] Tim Hiller. I think they will score some points and stay in this game, as long as they don't get off to a bad start and have the game spiral out of control. As long as they're not getting shoved off the ball and giving up touchdown after touchdown, they will have a chance in the fourth quarter, I really believe."

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