Row, row, 10-0: No. 14 Western Michigan stays unbeaten

Tom Withers
Associated Press

Kent, Ohio — Western Michigan’s perfect season is still afloat.

Western Michigan running back Fabian Johnson (3) stiff-arms Kent State linebacker Elcee Refuge (7) during the fourth quarter.

On a rainy night, the team that lives to “Row the Boat” stayed above water and unbeaten.

Jarvion Franklin rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown and Fabian Johnson added a career-high 125 yards as the No. 14 Broncos rallied for a 37-21 win over Kent State on Tuesday night to become the nation’s first 10-win team.

Franklin’s 19-yard TD with 8:27 helped the Broncos (10-0, 6-0 Mid-American Conference) finally put away the upset-minded Golden Flashes (3-7, 2-4), who jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

But Western Michigan, abiding by coach P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra, kept plugging away and scored 21 straight points before swinging the game with a safety in the fourth.

“That’s something we didn’t anticipate,” Franklin said of the 14-point hole. “But we just kept our oars in the water, stayed true to the process and believed we deserve to be here.”

The Broncos are the highest-ranked MAC school in the AP Top 25 poll since 2008 and have their sights on a major bowl bid. They moved to No. 21 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings just before kickoff and then shook off their biggest deficit this season.

“I’ve never been more proud of a football team in my entire career because they had everything on the line,” Fleck said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We’re always now on a national stage. Somebody wants to be the team to knock us off, and we know that.”

Quarterback Zach Terrell scored on a 1-yard keeper in the third quarter, capping a 20-play drive, to give Western Michigan its first lead at 19-14 before he threw a pass to Johnson for the 2-point conversion.

Kent State didn’t fold and responded with an 83-yard drive, tying it on freshman Justin Rankin’s 20-yard run.

Western Michigan’s next drive stalled near mid-field, but the Broncos downed a punt at Kent State’s 1, and on the next play linebacker Robert Spillane stuffed Rankin in the end zone for two points.

“The play of the game,” Fleck said.

The Broncos got the ball back, and Johnson, primarily a blocking back, picked up 35 yards on four carries before Franklin scored his 39th career TD, tying the school record held by Jerome Persell (1976-79).

Kent State’s defense was missing its best player as star safety Nate Holley was suspended indefinitely following his arrest on felony kidnapping charges.

Holley’s twin brother, Nick, Kent State’s quarterback, rushed for 141 yards.

“It was a tough, hard-nosed football game,” Kent State head coach Paul Haynes said. “Our guys fought like crazy for as long as we could.”

The Broncos were the last team in the country to commit a turnover, and that didn’t come until their seventh game. But Franklin’s fumble on their first offensive play put them behind.

Franklin had the ball jarred loose and it was picked up by Kent State defensive back Najee Murray, who returned it 47 yards to make it 7-0 just 2:07 into the game.

“That really lit a fire in me,” Franklin said.

Western Michigan had not trailed by more than seven all season, and showing the kind of poise Fleck preaches daily, the Broncos scored the next 13, pulling within one on Butch Hampton’s 23-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.