Defense a big factor in Broncos’ success

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush (10) attempts to throw as Western Michigan defensive end Keion Adams (1) gets a hand on him during the first half.

Detroit — Western Michigan senior Keion Adams couldn’t stop smiling as he walked around Ford Field Thursday afternoon prior to practice for the Mid-American Conference championship game against Ohio.

Adams knows he has come a long way from his youth in the poverty stricken area of Salisbury, N.C., developing into one of the top defensive ends in the MAC and according to WMU head coach P.J. Fleck, the entire country.

Sure, No. 13 WMU (12-0) is known for its explosive offense with a quarterback in Zach Terrell, who has thrown for 30 TDs and just one interception, and a receiver in Corey Davis who is the first player in FBS history to have 300 receptions, 5,000 receiving yards and 50 TDs.

Still, Fleck knows the old adage that “defense wins championships” and two strong defenses will be on the field with Ohio ranked 31st in total defense and WMU one spot behind. The Bobcats get after the quarterback, owning 40 sacks, just four shy of Michigan which is No.1 nationally.

And, it is Adams who leads the Broncos with 17 tackles for loss.

“There’s an old saying ‘defense wins championships’ and when you look at the two teams that made it to the Mid-American Conference championship, their defenses are 1-2,” Fleck said. “When you look at Frank Solich, he’s an old-school ball coach, he’s one of the most legendary coaches in college football. He understands defense wins championships. He knows that’s what got him here.

“I understand as a head coach defense got us here. As much as our offense plays and how many points they’ve scored, the defense had to play elite all year for us to be able to have the possessions, have the turnover margin that we have.

Western Michigan vs. Ohio preview: All on the line

“We’ve turned the ball over five times on offense, but we’re plus-18. Think of how many turnovers we had to get and that’s a credit to Keion Adams coming off the edge. He is one of the most explosive players I think in the country, let alone our conference. He’s very explosive. There’s two defensive ends in this game that I think are the best ones in the country, their No. 93 (Tarell Basham) and obviously Keion Adams for us.”

Ohio is led by defensive end Basham, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, who has 44 tackles, 14 1/2 for loss and 11 sacks.

Adams is every bit as good as Basham and will have a little chip on his shoulder, coming in with All-MAC second-team honors with 45 tackles, including 17 TFL.

In the end, Adams is just thrilled to be playing on the big stage with a MAC title on the line, especially since he played for the Broncos when they were stumbling through a 1-11 season his freshman year.

“This is what you dream about as a kid, especially when you’re small and coming from a poverty-stricken neighborhood and stuff like that, just to be here and be in this atmosphere is something that you dream of, especially coming in with guys who were 1-11 so we’ve come a long way and just to be here and experience it with this group of guys is an amazing feeling.”

So, what was Adams’ neighborhood like?

“It was a close-knit neighborhood, but stricken with gangs, drugs and violence so this is what it’s all about, the opportunity that I’ve dreamed of. I had guys around town that I looked up to and provided help for me, but they just couldn’t make it out due to grades and you’re not going to be here without grades.”

Adams has a 3.0 GPA and is majoring in criminal justice with a minor in sociology with plans to “better help out the community and just be able to connect with the younger guys, keep them out of their cycle of going to jail and experiencing something much better for them.”

When asked to describe WMU’s defense, Adams simply said: “Suffocating. We just try to get after the quarterback and make them one dimensional, so they can play into our game which is to go after the quarterback.

“Coach Fleck did an amazing job, an elite job actually of getting his guys in here and just playing to the scheme that (defensive coordinator) Coach Pinkham has brought to this program, guys like Spillane, Asantay Brown, guys in the secondary like Darius Phillips and Sam Beal that play for one another, go out there and enjoy each other and play with a passion.”

It was junior Robert Spillane who stripped the ball away from Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson at the Broncos 1 in the final minutes of the season-opener, a reason the Broncos escaped with a 22-21 victory and are unbeaten.

Fleck hasn’t forgotten and also has remembered who helped make that play possible.

“Robert Spillane, stripping that ball at Northwestern, I mean they’re going in to score and we’re 0-1 right out of the gate if he doesn’t strip the ball, but nobody really saw Sam Beal, the true sophomore corner who is a thin guy, come up and hit the running back low so he would jar the ball a little bit loose so Robert could get the ball out,” Fleck said. “The one thing I love about the defense is they are very opportunistic and they understand the ball is the program. They are a suffocating, swarming defense, but that is what Ohio is and what I really respect about them.”

WMU’s offense is special, but the Broncos’ defense is something to keep a close eye on as well in the MAC title game.

Twitter,com: @DavidGoricki