Syracuse University football coach Dino Babers enjoyed the brief time he spent with Tim Lester at a coaches gathering this past offseason, but is hoping to spoil the former SU assistant’s return to the Carrier Dome today while delivering a much-needed victory for the Orange.
SU (1-2 overall) will host Western Michigan (2-1) at noon today in the Carrier Dome for a nonconference game scheduled to be televised on the ACC Network.
The Orange is looking to bounce back after a pair of lopsided losses — including a 41-6 Atlantic Coast Conference setback to top-ranked Clemson in front of the third-largest crowd in Dome history last Saturday — and enters as a six-point favorite over the Broncos of the Mid-American Conference.
Western Michigan is in its third season under Lester, who worked as SU quarterbacks coach in 2013 and offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 under former head coach Scott Shafer.
Babers, during his weekly press conference Monday, described meeting Lester and his wife at an offseason function. Lester expressed his excitement about SU’s breakout 2018 campaign and the finish to Eric Dungey’s career during the exchange, while Babers thanked the former SU assistant for recruiting last year’s starting quarterback to the program.
Given the Orange’s recent lack of production and the Broncos coming in with a high-octane offense that ranks 25th in the FBS in scoring (41.6 points per game) and passing yards per game (299), the tone of today’s meeting is likely to be all business. SU held on for a 55-42 road victory over the Broncos in last year’s season opener, which marks the only previous matchup between the two teams.
“He’s a nice guy and he’s doing a great job at Western Michigan getting that program started,” Babers said of his coaching counterpart.
“The opponent that we’re playing proved last year that they’re capable of scoring points and can get us into a shootout,” he added. “They’re not afraid of us and their head coach has a lot of experience playing in this place, so he knows the positives and the negatives that he needs to get his team ready for. We expect a very hungry opponent that can beat us and we better come ready to go.”
The Orange offense has stumbled to start the season, averaging just 16.7 points and 318 yards of offense through its first three games after 2018 season averages of 40 points and 464 yards per game. SU’s scoring output marks its lowest three-game stretch since Babers’ first season at the helm in 2016.
SU’s offensive line is again expected to be without anchor Sam Heckel due to an upper-body injury, and has had difficulty protecting redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito in his first season as the starter. DeVito has thrown just three touchdowns to four interceptions thus far, and was sacked eight times while constantly working to avoid blitzes in last Saturday’s loss to the Tigers.
Lester has the Broncos rolling to start the season, leading the MAC with 501 yards of offense per game while also possessing the conference’s top-ranked scoring offense. WMU has averaged 202 rushing yards this season, behind a strong tandem of LeVante Bellamy and big-play threat Sean Tyler, and scored a program-record seven rushing TDs during a 57-10 victory over Georgia State last Saturday.
Senior quarterback Jon Wassink, who threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns against SU last season, has completed 70 percent of his passes for 866 yards and seven TDs through three games, while engineering the 12th-most efficient pass offense (184.7 rating) in the FBS.
“They’re a physical outfit, they play hard and they know who they are,” SU senior defensive end Kendall Coleman said. “This is not a pick-me-up game against some smaller conference team. There aren’t any games on our schedule that we can take lightly and this is one we’ll have to go in there and battle for.”
Lester — a Chicago native and former WMU quarterback who is one of 16 FBS coaches guiding his alma mater — has led the Broncos to a 15-13 overall record and two straight bowl-eligible seasons.
He spoke fondly of his three-year stint at SU during his weekly press conference, available on the WMU athletics website, and described his excitement meeting SU icons Donovan McNabb and Floyd Little.
Lester also spoke of the edge that experience provides and said that he and his staff have developed a special hydration plan based on what he learned from watching opposing players cramp frequently on hot days in the Dome. Temperatures are expected to be around 80 degrees in Syracuse by kickoff.
SU’s last nonconference home loss came to Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 9, 2017, with Shafer — Lester’s former SU boss — on the Lightning sideline as defensive coordinator.
“If you are hydrated and prepared, you’re fine, but it’s not something you really think about until you go (to the Dome) and you work there and you’re in there a lot,” Lester said. “So it’s hot, it’s loud, and obviously they have a really good team, so those are the main three challenges.”