WMU wins MAC West, has clear path to Cotton Bowl
Kalamazoo — A few years back, in Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard's messy, second-floor office at University Arena, she would hold late-night meetings with football coach P.J. Fleck.
They might as well have been therapy sessions.
In the midst of an awful first season as a Division I head coach — his hiring already was controversial, because of his age — Fleck would vent and Beauregard would listen. Most importantly, she would support him, even when others, including boosters and even the university president, weren't nearly so sure.
"She wasn't a boss. She's never been a boss. She's been a friend," Fleck said Friday night, following Western Michigan's 55-35 victory over Toledo at Waldo Stadium.
"For a woman to have the vision she had, this has really nothing to do with me. She's the one who pulled the trigger on this culture.
"I don't know how many teams have done that in a three-year span. I have no idea. I'd like to know."
In Fleck's first season, WMU was 1-11. In his fourth season, the Broncos are 12-0 after Friday's methodical at first, convincing at last victory over Toledo, to secure the Mid-American Conference West title.
That sets WMU, now 12-0 (8-0 MAC), ranked 14th in the Associated Press poll and 21st in the College Football Rankings, up with a date in the MAC championship game, against Ohio (8-4), on Dec. 2 at Ford Field in Detroit.
It'll be WMU's first appearance in the game since 2000. It has never won a MAC championship game.
"No, I mean that's pretty hard to see, this team being undefeated, and here we are now," said senior receiver Corey Davis, who had a historic night of his own, setting the Football Bowl Subdivision record for most career receiving yards. "It's just a testament to Coach Fleck and this entire staff. They believed in us when we didn't believe in ourselves.
"We kept growing and kept our oars in the water, and here we are."
With Friday night's win coupled with an earlier loss by Boise State to Air Force, Western Michigan's path to the New Year's Six is crystal clear — win the MAC title, and it'll likely be the Cotton Bowl, on Jan. 2 in Arlington, Texas, for the Broncos.
How big a leap is that?
Don't just consider 1-11. Just last year, WMU won its first-ever bowl game. This year, it was ranked in the polls for the first time.
"Someone said, 'It's once in a lifetime,' " WMU president John Dunn said after Friday's game. "I said, 'I don't think so!"
That should tell you all you need to know about where WMU thinks it's going, even beyond this season, and what it thinks it's odds are of keeping Fleck for a fifth season and beyond, when his name all week leading up to the Toledo game was thrown about in the coaching rumor-sphere. Houston? Texas? Purdue? Notre Dame?
The Broncos talk a good game about blocking things out.
On Friday, they showed it's not just talk — from the opening seconds, when on the first play from scrimmage, junior linebacker Asanty Brown stepped in front of a sideline pass from Toledo's Logan Woodside, picked it off and scampered 21 yards for the quick touchdown.
Just like that, the crowd of 24,191 on a chilly, rainy Friday night — the student section was packed, the day after Thanksgiving — was into it. WMU set a single-season attendance record, no surprise.
That was one of three turnovers by Toledo (9-3, 6-2), all leading to WMU touchdowns.
WMU led, 24-14, at the half, and then in the pivotal third quarter, WMU senior linebacker Keion Adams drilled Woodside, who never saw him coming — and he fumbled, recovered by junior end Nathan Braster. On the very next play, WMU's senior quarterback Zach Terrell found senior receiver Carrington Thompson from 9 yards out to the left corner of the end zone for a 45-15 lead and the final blow to a Toledo team that came in as the sure underdog, but not by much more than a touchdown.
The Broncos, on a slippery night, had no turnovers. Protecting the ball was drilled home in practice.
"We have a thing at the end of practice called, 'The Program,' " said sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan, who has played sparingly since the CMU game this season because of a rolled ankle — but burst out in a big way with 200 rushing yards on 31 carries and a touchdown. "It's pretty much ingrained in us, but it was an overemphasis on us this week.
"Those days always pay off. Coach always says, 'You get what you emphasize.' "
Junior cornerback Darius Phillips also had an interception in the second half for a WMU defense that also posted a pivotal fourth-down hold late in the second half, on fourth-and-2.
That also led to a touchdown — so if you count the three turnovers, that's 28 points set up by the defense.
Bogan's fellow back, junior running back Jarvion Franklin, who picked up the bulk of Bogan's workload in his absence, had two rushing scores in the first half.
"It doesn't matter if I play or not, for me," Bogan said. "I don't really care about that.
"It's not about me. It's about every one else in that (running-back room)."
Toledo was shut out in the third quarter, then scored 21 in the fourth with the game in hand and WMU's defense, clearly, happy with a job well done.
The Rockets tried a little trickery in the fourth, using two kickers on each of its two onside-kick tries — but on one, there was confusion among the kickers. One finally went for it, but booted it sideways for no gain in an odd scene. The other one was recovered easily by WMU late in the game, before the fans stormed the field.
Toledo also had a 200-yard back, with Kareem Hunt rushing for 204 yards on 20 carries and a score. Tight end Michael Roberts had three TD passes from Woodside.
Davis, of course, stole the show again, even though he wasn't the biggest offensive contributor on this night. In the second quarter, he caught a 7-yard pass from Terrell, making him the all-time FBS leader in career receiving yards. With eight catches for 81 yards and a TD Friday, he has 5,068 career yards — passing the 5,006 by Nevada's Trevor Insley from 1996-99. Davis is the first player in FBS history with at least 5,000 receiving yards, 50 touchdowns and 300 receptions.
"It's really hard to run the table in college football and go undefeated, as you know," Toledo head coach Jason Candle said. "Hats off to their staff and their players for getting that accomplished."
WMU, of course, is one of two undefeated teams left in the country, joining top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama.
Woodside was 13-for-24 for 229 yards, while Hunt had 73 receiving yards.
Terrell, so poised and calm in the pocket, was 19-for-25 for 196 yards, and freshman Butch Hampton had a pair of 23-yard field goals for the Broncos, who began the season as not even the talk of the town — and now have become quite the national darling, even if skeptics remain because of a supposed soft schedule.
ESPN.com, USA Today and multiple professional scouts were in attendance Friday night.
"People can label us, put a number on us, we won't," Fleck barked during a spirited postgame press conference. "We're proud to be in the Mid-American Conference. We wouldn't have it any other way.
"This team's deserving of everything they get, and if other people don't think that, I really don't care."
MAC Championship Game
Ohio vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Dec. 2, Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Ohio (8-4, 6-2 MAC), WMU 12-0 (8-0)
Tickets: $10-$20, available at mac-sports.com