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Spillane hopes to lead Broncos to second Big Ten upset

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — Robert Spillane can’t wait to get on the field Saturday when Western Michigan makes the trip to play at Illinois, its second Big Ten opponent in the opening month of the season.

And, for good reason. Spillane is from Chicago, offered by Illinois and has already made a big play for WMU in its win over a Big Ten team, stripping Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson of the ball at the Broncos 1 in the final minutes, leading to their 22-21 win in Week 1.

The Broncos have defeated Big Ten teams before, but never two in the same season. They are off to their first 2-0 start since 1994.

“We just saw a play that needed to be made and we needed the ball back so our defense surrounded the ball carrier and I was able to get my hand on the ball and get it loose,” Spillane, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior, said of his key play.

Spillane will again have dozens of family and friends watch him play at Illinois. However, one of his biggest supporters, his grandfather and former Heisman Trophy award winner Johnny Lattner, will not be in attendance. He died in February.

“He passed away this offseason,” Spillane said. “You can say he was there on that last play (forced fumble). He definitely looked down on me for that one.”

Lattner played at Fenwick High School in Oak Park on the west side of Chicago before playing at Notre Dame. Spillane followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, starring as a tailback/linebacker at Fenwick before moving on to the Broncos.

Spillane had other offers, but the three-star athlete picked WMU an hour after taking his first official visit, feeling strongly that he wanted to play for P.J. Fleck with his high energy and lofty goals.

“He had offers from Illinois, Cincinnati, Syracuse and other schools,” Fenwick coach Gene Nudo said. “He went to Western Michigan on his first official visit and I told him, ‘Don’t be in a hurry, let’s play this thing out.’ He was there just an hour and called me, saying ‘I’m going to play here.’ A lot of coaches had come to talk with him, but he stuck with it.

“I’m thrilled for the success he’s having there. I mean he blew out his whole knee last year and he’s already playing and he’s playing well. Usually an injury like that, it takes over a year before you’re normal. He’s just tough as nails and has a high football IQ, understands the game so well. And, if you tell him why you’re supposed to do something, you better tell him the same thing the next day or he’ll challenge you on it.”

Spillane suffered a knee injury early in a 58-28 rout of Eastern Michigan in late October, a week after he was named MAC West Defensive Player of the Week for making nine tackles, 3 1.2 for lost yardage in a win over Miami (Ohio).

“It’s been a long journey, but the coaches, my teammates, everyone around the building supported me and encouraged me to work my hardest all offseason just so I could get back for the season so it’s great to be back,” Spillane said. “It was such a great experience to be back on the field, playing against Northwestern, having all the family out there, being with my teammates and really great to get that win.”

Spillane has enjoyed playing for new linebackers coach Dave Duggan, who came from Southern Mississippi, where he helped the Golden Eagles go from 3-9 in 2014 to the Conference USA championship game last season.

“I love Coach Duggan,” Spillane said. “He’s really amazing. He’s opened my eyes to a lot of new schemes and new defensive thoughts on how to play linebacker. All of our linebackers’ games have been taken to a new level by Coach Duggan. He really coaches the fundamentals and the details really well.”

Spillane is joined at the linebacker spot by junior Caleb Bailey and junior Asantay Brown, an all-conference safety a year ago who had a team-high 103 tackles.

“Asantay and Caleb are awesome to play with,” Spillane said. “We all work hard in the meeting room and on the field, really push each other to be the best we can. We compete against each other, but we also work together as a team.”

Fans know the Broncos for their explosive offense, led by veteran quarterback Zach Terrell, an NFL-type receiver in Corey Davis who surpassed the 4,000-yard career receiving mark in last week’s 70-21 win over North Carolina Central, and a strong running game.

“There’s not a better quarterback in the country than Zach Terrell,” Spillane said.

Fans were wondering how the Broncos would replace Daniel Braverman after the slot receiver left for the NFL (draft pick of the Bears) after an outstanding junior year (108 receptions, 1,371 yards, 13 TDs).

“Braverman was a big piece of our offense, but guys like Carrington Thompson, Michael Henry and Keishawn Watson have really stepped up,” Spillane said. “Those guys are unreal so I don’t think we’re going to lose anything there.”

Thompson had a big third-down reception to keep the drive alive in the final minute against Northwestern after Spillane’s forced fumble, then grabbed a TD pass against North Carolina Central.

Fleck is thrilled Spillane is back and healthy.

“Robert Spillane is the heartbeat of our team on defense,” Fleck said. “He makes everything go and it’s wonderful to have him back in there. He’s got length. He’s got strength. He’s got maturity on his side. He’s played a lot of football so he’s got experience and I feel everybody feeds off of him.”


Twitter.com: @DavidGoricki