Toledo stands in way of Western's MAC title bid

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Kalamazoo — It all comes down to this, Toledo facing No. 14 Western Michigan Friday night with the Mid-American Conference West Division title on the line.

Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell has thrown for 27 touchdowns this season.

Sure, Michigan-Ohio State is a mammoth game Saturday in Columbus, but Friday’s game at Waldo Stadium is just as big for the Broncos (11-0, 7-0) and Rockets (9-2, 6-1) who want to be playing for the MAC championship Dec. 2 at Ford Field.

The Broncos earned their first win over a Top-25 program in the regular-season finale at No. 24 Toledo last year, 35-30, to start their current 13-game winning streak. They haven't lost in more than a year.

No doubt, Western has gained a tremendous amount of exposure on its way to an 11-0 record with ESPN's "College GameDay" in Kalamazoo Saturday morning, then having the Broncos blank Buffalo 38-0 later that afternoon to put themselves in this position.

But, a loss to Toledo and all of the Broncos’ progress — just one of two unbeaten teams in FBS with No. 1 Alabama as the other — has gone out the window because nothing short of a MAC title will be considered a success.

That’s what happens when your football program hasn’t won a MAC championship since 1988 and hasn’t reached the conference title game since 2000.

The last time the Broncos were in this position was 2008 when Bill Cubit guided his 9-2 team to No. 12 Ball State with a 6-1 conference record, needing a win to compete in the title game. Western lost 45-22. Ball State’s ranking at the time is still the highest in the MAC, and that could change with a Bronco win Friday.

“Any time you have a team ranked nationally, especially in the Mid-American Conference it’s always big, but we’re going to take this as a one-game season, it’s no bigger than the game before because that game was just as big, and if that (win) didn’t happen we wouldn’t be in the position we are now,” said Western fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck. “We have to be at our best because Toledo is a phenomenal football team. It’s like looking in a mirror and we’re talking offense, defense and special teams. It’s amazing how similar we both really are.”

While the Broncos have an explosive offense — rank No. 5 in the FBS in scoring (43.8) and 11th in total offense (509.8 yards) — led by four-year starting quarterback Zach Terrell (71.3 percent, 2,890 yards, 27 touchdowns, 1 INT), receiver Corey Davis, (75 receptions, 1,202 yards, 16 TDs) and a 1,000-yard running back in junior Jarvion Franklin (1,228 yards, 10 TDs), so does the Rockets.

What? Well, Toledo junior quarterback Logan Woodside has thrown for 3,653 yards and 40 TDs (seven INTs), completing 70.1 percent of his passes while only getting sacked 10 times. He too has a big-play receiver in Cody Thompson who has 56 receptions for 1,126 yards and 10 TDs and an outstanding running back in Kareem Hunt (1,155 yards, 7 TDs). The Rockets rank No. 5 in the FBS in total offense (536.5) and are averaging 39.2 points.

Still, Fleck wouldn’t want any other quarterback in the nation running his offense than Terrell who he feels should be in line for Heisman Trophy award consideration.

“Zach Terrell is the finest football player and the most finest man I’ve ever met in my entire life,” praised Fleck of Terrell who completed 29-of-37 for a career-high 445 yards and four TDs against Buffalo … and had receivers drop six of his passes in that game played in snow, wind and cold conditions. “Whatever trophy list he’s on, he should win them all or it’s a disgrace.

“You want to talk about what the Heisman is? I know we’re not in that Power Five type, fancy, under the lights deal, but we’re 11-and-0, and us and Alabama are the only ones. And, there’s one guy besides everybody else that makes it go. The most important position on a football team is the quarterback and our quarterback, in my opinion, is the best quarterback, the most valuable player to his football team than anybody in the country.

“He’s my Heisman guy and I don’t care if he wins it, doesn’t win it. I only have a vote, but I’m voting for him. But, again, people will say, ‘Ah, well, their conference ...,’ but I’m just telling you 99 percent of the people in the country would love to have Zach Terrell on their football team, I promise you that.”

And, Davis could become the first receiver in FBS history to have 300 receptions, 5,000 receiving yards and 50 TDs. He enters the game with 310 receptions, 4,987 yards and 49 TDs, needing 19 yards to top Trevor Insley’s FBS career receiving record (5,005, Nevada).

“This kid is one of the most special football players in the history of the game and he plays here within the Mid-American Conference and we’re very proud of him for that,” said Fleck of Davis who put on 12 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame during the offseason to go with his 4.5 speed and great leaping ability.

WMU’s defense has played well, giving up 51 fewer points than the Rockets (112-163) in MAC play. The Broncos have also forced 20 turnovers, including a dozen interceptions, three for pick-sixes by cornerback Darius Phillips, a reason they are No. 1 in the country in turnover margin with a plus-15, while Toledo has forced just 10 and has a minus-1 turnover rating.

“The ball’s the program,” Fleck said, talking of the importance of protecting the ball.

And, the MAC West title could just come down to that come Friday.

WMU junior linebacker Robert Spillane could make a difference. He certainly has in a number of games this season, stripping the ball from the Northwestern quarterback in the final minutes while he was trying to get into the end zone, resulting in a 22-21 Broncos’ season-opening win, then tackled a Kent State running back in the end zone for a safety to give the Broncos a 23-21 fourth-quarter lead in an eventual 37-21 victory Nov. 8.

Spillane has a team-high 93 tackles, also intercepting two passes and forcing two fumbles.