Scroll down the Owls’ schedule, and the trend is fairly easy to recognize.
A ranked opponent in Week 1. A team receiving top 25 votes in Weeks 2 and 3. The perpetrator of a 70-16 drubbing last year at Lincoln Financial Field.
And after that? Just three more ranked teams and another that received 177 votes in the latest poll.
In the middle of it all lies Western Michigan.
The Owls (0-3) get a one week reprieve from the big guns on their schedule, the seventh-toughest slate in the nation according to a USA Today poll. That does not mean, however, that the game is a sure win.
The Broncos (1-2) went 1-10 last season and lost 11 starters to graduation, but like the majority of teams in the Mid-American Conference, their offense is not to be taken lightly. Quarterback Ryan Cubit is averaging 241 passing yards per game and has thrown four touchdowns to just two interceptions. Senior running back Trovon Riley carried 30 times for 156 yards in his season debut last week in a victory over Division I-AA No. 1-ranked Southern Illinois.
Against Toledo last Saturday, the Owls saw their first three drives end due to unforced errors, forcing coach Bobby Wallace to decline calling Saturday’s game one the Owls will be surprised if they don’t win.
“It depends on how we play. I’ve got to say that,” Wallace said. “If we go out there and drop the ball on the ground, throw interceptions, then I’ll be very surprised if we win. If we go out there and play extremely well and as hard as we can, then we have a chance to win.”
Without those vital mistakes against Toledo, the Owls would not have handed the Rockets a 21-0 lead and may have had a chance to win. Players had varying opinions on whether that made the loss more comforting or more frustrating.
“It’s not about frustration or comfort, or knowing we can play with anybody,” senior cornerback Ray Lamb said. “We already know we can. Mistakes, sometimes they happen. Sometimes they’re missed assignments from youth or inexperience. But as of right now, we’re not intimidated by anybody. Forget that. We come too hard.”
Having suffered their worst loss in 28 years on Sept. 10, a 65-0 loss to Wisconsin, the Owls came back and “didn’t fold the tent” against Toledo, Wallace said.
This week, buoyed by an improved performance last weekend, the Owls look to turn fighting back into fighting to win.
In that way, while the loss was not comforting, Lamb acknowledged the mistakes confirmed the Owls are not in over their heads if they simply execute.
“The reason we can walk away from this [loss to Toledo] and learn from it is that we know we came together as a team, and that’s all that matters,” Lamb said. “We can care less about the other team. We know it’s about us. It’s not about them”
Wallace uttered words this week he hadn’t been able to say this season.
“I think we could have won the game,” he said. “We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better.”