WMU's 'ridiculous' turnover margin biggest stat in 12-0 season

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Corey Davis

Kalamazoo -- "Row the Boat" gets all the headlines.

But there's another P.J. Fleck-ism -- a little “Bronconese,” as the players call it -- that has had just as big of an impact on this magical season:

"The Ball is the Program."

"Coach put some statistics up on the board that the top teams in the country are the ones that really protect the ball," senior quarterback Zach Terrell said, describing when he first heard Fleck use that phrase.

"And the ones at the bottom are the ones that didn't."

In 2013, Fleck's first year, Western Michigan was minus-7 in turnover margin, tied for 104th in the nation. The Broncos committed 26 turnovers that season, en route to a 1-11 finish.

This year, Western Michigan is plus-18 in turnover margin, tied with College Football Playoff contender Washington for tops in the nation, a huge reason the Broncos are 12-0 entering Friday night's Mid-American Conference championship game against Ohio (8-4).

Western Michigan didn't commit a turnover this season until Week 7. By then, every other team in the country already had committed at least one, most many more.

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It starts with Terrell, who has just one interception to 30 touchdown passes. But the message resonates with everyone.

"The ball's everything," senior receiver Corey Davis said. "We harp on that, we talk about that every single day in practice. We have 'program' drills at the end of practice.

"That's something we emphasize every single day."

Not once this season did Western Michigan cough up more turnovers than it forced -- with big margins in wins over Georgia Southern (4-0), Ball State (3-0) and in last week's regular-season finale against a quality Toledo team (3-0).

Twice, Western Michigan tied in turnovers, with Eastern Michigan (1-1) in Week 8, when Terrell threw his one interception, and two weeks later against Kent State (1-1).

Only in one game, in Week 2 against North Carolina Central, did Western Michigan not force a single turnover.

"What are they, a plus-18 on turnovers?" Ohio coach Frank Solich said this week. "It's a ridiculous number. We're plus-5, so there's a disparity there.

"The challenges are there. We'll do everything we can to try and meet those challenges."

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At the end of every practice, WMU goes through "the program" drill, which focuses solely on ball security. Offensive players work on protecting balls that have been soaked in water, or even frozen, leaving the Broncos prepared for all the elements.

They were especially focused on that drill after the Week 11 win over Buffalo, against whom, in the snow, the Broncos fumbled five times, and were fortunate to lose only one.

Fearing the weather would be bad again against Toledo -- and it was -- that was the primary focus of practice, and the Broncos didn't fumble once in the 55-35 rout of the Rockets.

"Those days always pay off," sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan said of the end-of-practice drills. "Coach always says you get what you emphasize."

The offense protects the ball, and the defense goes hunting for the ball.

That was on display on the very first play from scrimmage against Toledo, when junior linebacker Asantay Brown picked off a Logan Woodside pass and returned it 21 yards for a quick-strike touchdown.

Junior cornerback Darius Phillips leads Western Michigan with four interceptions, and senior safety Justin Ferguson, out for the season following a gruesome leg injury against Toledo, has three. Seven different Broncos have had an interception, and seven have had a fumble recovery.

"It took us a little while to get that, to buy in," Terrell said of the "Ball is the Program" mantra. "We really saw it for ourselves that first year.

"We were one of the worst teams in the country.

"This year, we're one of the best teams in the country."

Twitter @tonypaul1984