Western Kentucky (8-4) and Western Michigan (7-5) will meet in the First Responder Bowl at 12:30 p.m. ET today, Dec. 30. Find a prediction, preview and more for the game below.
Western Kentucky-Western Michigan: First Responder Bowl prediction, preview
Western Kentucky's 2018 campaign produced the program's fewest single-season wins since 2010. It also led Tyson Helton back to The Hill. Helton, a former offensive coordinator and passing game coordinator for the Hilltoppers, returned to WKU for his first head coaching role following stints at Southern California and Tennessee.
With the coaching change came a five-win turnaround, the third-best improvement among FBS teams. A significant turnaround warranted an even more significant honor as Helton was named the Conference USA Coach of the Year following an 8-4 regular season in which the Hilltoppers defeated four bowl-eligible teams and won on the road at Arkansas.
Western Michigan matched its win total from a season ago with a 7-5 record. While the Broncos didn't undergo the same record improvement as Western Kentucky, they are are bowling for the fourth time in five years. Prior to 2011, the school had four bowl appearances total.
Additionally, accolades were abundant in Kalamazoo. Since 2017, coach Tim Lester's first year, WMU leads the MAC with 32 all-conference selections. This season, Western Michigan's LeVante Bellamy and Treshaun Hayward were named the league's offensive and defensive players of the year respectively, becoming the first MAC team to produce both players in the same season since Marshall in 2001.
Both programs have reasons to be optimistic about their futures. But on Monday, Western Kentucky and Western Michigan will bring a detailed past into the 21st century as their 16th overall meeting is the first in 72 years.
Like Helton, quarterback Ty Storey made the jump from the SEC to Conference USA. The one-time Arkansas Razorback was named the starter three games in for WKU, going 7-2 the rest of the way — including a win over Arkansas — and later being named the C-USA Newcomer of the Year. Storey sustained drives well, throwing five interceptions while taking 16 sacks on the year. An ability to manage games opened the ground game for defensive back convert Gaej Walker's 1,115 yard season.
More importantly, it kept the Hilltoppers' defense well-rested. WKU conceded more than 30 points only three times while holding six opponents under 20. DeAngelo Malone was the catalyst of that unit, tabbed the conference defensive player of the year after posting double-digit sacks and finishing tied for fourth in FBS with 21.5 tackles for loss.
Western Michigan's approach, however, has been more offensive-minded. Bellamy's 1,412 yards rank 11th in FBS while holding a share of the lead for rushing touchdowns with 23, although he's played one fewer game than SMU's Xavier Jones. The program's 35 rushing touchdowns is eighth nationally and fifth among teams that don't run the triple-option.
The Broncos average over 450 yards of offense, a game plan primarily dictated by the success of its rushing attack. Defensively, WMU has taken strides from 2018 to 2019, allowing over eight fewer points per game. But they do allow over 400 yards on average, primarily on the ground. Knowing that Western Kentucky held the ball for almost 40 minutes against Army is a potential concern for Broncos' potential vulnerability to defend the run.
Western Kentucky-Western Michigan: First Responder Bowl time, TV channel
Western Kentucky and Western Michigan play at 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 30, from Gerald J. Ford Stadium in University Park, Texas. The game is on ESPN.
Western Kentucky-Western Michigan: Stats, how they compare
|WESTERN KENTUCKY||STAT/LEADER||WESTERN MICHIGAN|
|8-4 (6-2 Conference USA)||Record (Conference)||7-5 (5-3 MAC)|
|25.6||Points per game||34.2|
|380||Yards per game||457.3|
|337.8||Yards allowed per game||414.6|
|200.5||Passing yards allowed||228.1|
|137.3||Rushing yards allowed||186.5|
2,209 yards (12 TD, 5 INT)
|Passing yards||Jon Wassink
2,904 yards (19 TD, 7 INT)
1,115 yards (4.9 per att.), 8 TDs
|Rushing yards||LeVante Bellamy
1412 yards (5.7 per att.), 23 TDs
985 yards, 3 TD
|Receiving yards||Skyy Moore
734 yards, 3 TD
90 tackles, 21 tfl, 11.5 sacks, 16 QBH
|Defensive leader||Treshaun Hayward
132 tackles, 10.5 tfl, 5 sacks
Western Kentucky-Western Michigan: Prediction
Both teams produced strong seasons from a statistical standpoint. This game could come down to an intangible factor: playing on the road. One of the more promising signs from Tyson Helton's first season is that WKU managed a 4-2 record outside of Bowling Green. For Western Michigan, a perfect 6-0 home record was marred by a 1-5 mark on the road. Offensively, the Broncos topped 30 points twice away from Kalamazoo and were outscored by a margin of 14 points per game.
Western Kentucky 27, Western Michigan 24