WMU's turnover-happy 'D' to be short-handed in MAC title game

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Justin Ferguson gets taken off the field on a stretcher after being injured Friday night against Toledo.

Kalamazoo -- Western Michigan, tied for first in the nation in turnover margin (+18), will be short-handed on defense when it kicks off in the Mid-American Conference championship game.

Senior safety Justin Ferguson won't play Friday night at Ford Field after suffering a leg injury so gruesome, ESPN2 refused to show a replay of the hit in the second half of the 55-35 victory over Toledo.

Meanwhile, junior linebacker Caleb Bailey will miss the first half of the MAC title game against Ohio (8-4, 6-2 MAC) after being called for targeting against Toledo. He was ejected in the second half of the regular-season finale.

The two of them have combined this season for five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, two sacks and seven tackles for a loss.

"All players are so important to this culture," WMU coach P.J. Fleck said Sunday. "Next man in, next opportunity.

"(There's) lots of experience behind them."

WMU's defense is ranked 32nd in the country, allowing 361.5 yards a game. Ohio's offense isn't spectacular, by any means, ranked 72nd in the country, and 404 yards a game.

The teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday, with a whole lot at stake for the heavily-favored Broncos (12-0, 8-0). Win and they're almost certainly crashing the New Year's Six party and playing in the Cotton Bowl, set for Jan. 2 in Arlington, Texas.

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Big Ten East division champion Penn State could be the Cotton Bowl opponent, according to CBS Sports' latest projections -- which would certainly add some spice and intrigue to a Western Michigan season to remember.

On Friday night, the Broncos finished a regular season undefeated for the first time since 1941. They join defending national champion Alabama as the only teams to make it through the regular season undefeated. WMU is up to No. 13 in the Associated Press rankings, and No. 14 in the coaches' poll -- and it will leap over its fellow Broncos of Boise State, a loser to Air Force on Friday, to set up the path to the Cotton Bowl when the new College Football Rankings are released Tuesday night.

But the win was costly.

Bailey and Ferguson both were lost in the fourth quarter against Toledo, Bailey first, after a hit on quarterback Logan Whiteside. After review, the targeting call was upheld and he was ejected. Since it happened in the second half, Bailey, a 6-foot, 236-pounder from Romeoville, Illinois, who has two picks and two fumble recoveries, will be out the first half against Ohio.

It was a questionable call, as most targeting calls are, but Fleck wasn't interested in griping about it two days after the fact.

"Protecting players?" Fleck said. "I'm all for it, period."

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Moments later, Ferguson went down with a nasty ankle injury. He was down on the field for several minutes as trainers worked on him and prepped him to be carted off the field.

His season almost certainly is over, though Fleck couldn't provide an exact update Sunday.

But while his season and WMU career is likely done, the 6-1, 203-pounder from Pembroke Pines, Florida, surely left a lasting impression.

As he was being driven off the Waldo Stadium field on a chilly night, Ferguson -- who has three interceptions and two forced fumbles – left the crowd with a heartwarming scene. He pointed upward, and then started rowing two imaginary oars.

Even in the midst of a devastating injury, Ferguson stuck to Fleck's "Row the Boat" mantra. You don't look back, even if you're in serious pain, and "back" had happened just moments earlier.

"Yeah, football might be done for you. Yeah, so what?" Fleck said after the game Friday, adding he even got goosebumps from the emotional scene – considering Ferguson, quite immature when he arrived on campus, is a new father and a soon-to-be husband. "Think of all the things you've learned in this culture.

"You're gonna remember all the experiences you had, how you changed as a man, how you grew higher.

"He'll never have any regrets in his life."

MAC championship game

Ohio vs. Western Michigan

Kickoff: Friday, 7 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: ESPN2/WDFN

Records: Ohio 8-4 (6-2 MAC), WMU 12-0 (8-0)

Line: WMU by 19

Tickets: $10-$20, available at mac-sports.com


Twitter @tonypaul1984