Broncos ride their turnover edge to another victory

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Western Michigan redshirt freshman Giovanni Ricci sprinted to Broncos head coach P.J. Fleck midway through the first quarter of the Mid-American Conference championship game Friday night at Ford Field, proudly delivering the ball to him.

After all, Fleck talks about how the ball is the program and Ricci took it to heart after recovering a fumble on the kickoff after the Broncos took a 3-0 lead on Butch Hampton’s 42-yard field goal.

“The ball is definitely the program and (Trevor) Sweeney made one heck of a hit on the guy and I was in the right place to jump on it,” Ricci said. “You know, being able to bring the ball over to Coach Fleck after a turnover like that is a great feeling, just amazing really.”

The Broncos took advantage of Ricci’s recovery with a Hampton 27-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead and went on to defeat Ohio 29-23 before a record crowd of 45,615 for their first MAC championship since 1988.

It was only fitting that junior linebacker Robert Spillane closed out the MAC championship with an interception at the WMU 30 with 51 seconds left to thwart an Ohio comeback.

Spillane had played well all season, a big reason the Broncos are ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and unbeaten at 13-0.

It was Spillane who stripped the ball from Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson at the Broncos 1 in the final minutes of the season opener, letting the Broncos escape with a 22-21 victory.

Spillane also tackled a Kent State running back for a safety in the fourth quarter for a 23-21 lead in an eventual 37-21 win on Election Night.

Spillane dedicated the season to his grandfather, former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy award winner Johnny Lattner, who passed away this offseason.

“He was really guiding me to that ball,” Spillane said. “I’m so thrilled for the seniors to go out like this, such a great team effort. I love these guys. The seniors put in so much hard work to put in the foundation for this program and look where we’re at, went from 1-11 to 13-0, can’t get any better than this.”

The Broncos again forced turnovers to make the difference. They entered the night in a first-place tie with No. 4 Washington in turnover margin with a plus-18, then made sure they would improve on that in the opening quarter. They forced three turnovers for the game.

First, Ohio redshirt freshman quarterback Quinton Maxwell lost the handle while getting ready to pass and defensive tackle Andre Turner pounced on the loose ball at the Bobcats 33.

While the Broncos didn’t capitalize off the first turnover, they did on Ricci’s recovery, which was set up by a big hit from senior Trevor Sweeney who was trying to make an impact in his final season while on special teams.

It was Fleck who presented Sweeney with a scholarship in training camp prior to his junior year, and he made sure he would make a play for his coach to remember him by, one that could help the Broncos play in the Cotton Bowl come Jan. 2.

“It wouldn’t be possible without my teammates,” Sweeney said of the forced turnover. “You can’t describe it, just so unbelievable and to see Ricci recover it, I mean he’s one of my best buddies.”

It wasn’t like Sweeney didn’t play big on special teams before. He earned his scholarship, forcing two fumbles his junior year while also making two tackles in the Bahamas Popeyes Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State last season.

With WMU standout quarterback Zach Terrell throwing a pair of interceptions — he entered the night with 30 TD passes and just one pick — the Broncos needed to force the three turnovers to win the all-important turnover battle in the most important game of the season.