Niyo: Everything is bigger for Broncos at Cotton Bowl

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Grapevine, Texas — P.J. Fleck is no Norman Dale, his neckwear notwithstanding.

But everything is bigger in Texas, and as Fleck introduced his Western Michigan team to that reality this week in Dallas, where the Broncos began preparations Tuesday for their Cotton Bowl clash with Wisconsin, he was ready with the tape measure, if needed.

Because despite everything Western Michigan has accomplished this season, scaling new heights with an undefeated 13-0 season and a Mid-American Conference championship, this is all so much bigger now.

And not surprisingly, the Broncos arrived in Dallas on Monday and were immediately taken aback by it all, from the posh surroundings at the Western-themed Gaylord Texan Resort in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth to the Townview “Big D” marching band that greeted the team, not to mention the buses adorned with personalized wraps featuring the players’ likenesses.

“I mean, if we would have went home after just seeing the buses, our players probably would have been OK, to be honest with you,” Fleck joked at his introductory press conference Tuesday.

“We had to tell the bus drivers to put the doors down on the side, because all the players wanted to see their faces, take pictures of the buses.”

And that was only the beginning. Because after they were done snapping selfies with themselves — talk about going through the looking glass, right? — and after they’d checked out all the perks of their home away from home for the next week, they headed to Monday night’s Lions-Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium.

“You can read about it, you can look at it,” said Fleck, who first laid eyes on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar behemoth as an NFL assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. “But when you see it from the outside — first of all, Jerry World looks like a big spaceship just landed — and then you actually walk in the place, it takes your breath away. …

“So I think it was wonderful for our players to be around that, to pretty much break the ice a little bit. To actually see how big that Jumobtron is.”

Exceeding expectations

And judging by the reactions — Fleck mimicked the wide-eyed, slack-jawed expressions Tuesday for comedic effect — it was the kind of “Hoosiers” move Coach Dale would’ve endorsed.

“Coach said that we were gonna be blown away, and I guess I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it has exceeded my expectations already,” said Zach Terrell, the Broncos’ fifth-year senior quarterback. “Yesterday was one of the best days I’ve ever had as a football player — and we didn’t even play football.”

They did later Tuesday afternoon, hitting the field underneath that gargantuan video board — “We have to get one of those at Western,” receiver Corey Davis laughed — for the first of five official practices at the stadium leading up to Monday’s game against the Badgers.

As always, though, Fleck’s message to his players is simple: Soak it up. But just remember that you earned this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” as Terrell called it Tuesday. So don’t forget to embrace it, the same way they embraced the challenge almost a full year ago, when Fleck flashed a Cotton Bowl logo on the wall in a team meeting room and then let his players decide if they really were up for it.

They were.

And they are, from the sounds of it.

Terrell spoke frankly about the challenge of facing a Big Ten team that’s unlike the others the Broncos beat earlier this season. Wisconsin’s a top-10 team playing in a bowl for the 15th consecutive year, and the Badgers finished the year ranked No. 2 nationally in run defense and No. 4 in scoring defense.

“They’re obviously one of the best defenses,” Terrell said. “That’s no secret. You look at the statistics, you watch the film, and it just jumps out at you. We will have our hands full. ... But what more can you ask in the Cotton Bowl other than to play one of the best teams in the country and to get an opportunity to prove yourself.”

Plenty of motivation

In the meantime, Terrell, like his coach, is taking time to explain to local media in Dallas just how Western Michigan got here, from 1-11 three years ago to one of two undefeated FBS teams this fall. (“And one of them really should be a NFL football team right now,” Fleck said, referencing Alabama.)

The rising coaching star talked about his “row the boat” mantra and what it means, while Terrell and Davis both shared some of the other “Bronconese,” all the slogans and sayings from Fleck that are now part of their own daily lexicon. Fleck even quizzed his players on that before they headed to Dallas, “just to remind us — especially the younger guys — what we are about and who we are and what we stand for,” Terrell said.

But what hardly needed to be said is what the motivation is here this week for Western Michigan. They’re still the underdogs, still the interloper looking for respect against a Power Five conference opponent and a coaching staff that didn’t offer them scholarships. And this game is, quite obviously, a big deal for the Broncos.

“So I don’t know why anybody would not be motivated to play, especially for a game like the Cotton Bowl,” said Terrell, who won the Campbell Trophy as football’s top scholar-athlete. “If you need to be motivated and be pushed to prepare for a game like this against Wisconsin, then you probably shouldn’t be playing college football. And you definitely shouldn’t be on our football team. For us, this is an opportunity that no one has ever had at Western Michigan.

“And if you take that lightly, then shame on you.”

But take the Broncos lightly, and the same is true for you.

“This is a very mature group,” Fleck said. “These guys understand what they have to do. They understand why they’re here. Our team is not shocked to be here, guys. They’re not shocked. It’s not too big for them.”