Broncos backfield duo stealthily deals offensive damage
Arlington, Texas — When it looked not long ago that P.J. Fleck was going to leave Western Michigan for greener pastures, one of the most-sensical reasons was this:
The Broncos, 13-0 and in the Cotton Bowl, stand to lose two outstanding seniors, receiver and likely first-round pick Corey Davis and quarterback Zach Terrell.
And with a tougher schedule next season that opens with road games against Southern California and Michigan State, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Broncos take a big step back.
That's possible, of course, but not a certainty, either, because of a running game that often gets overlooked, playing in the shadows of Davis and Terrell, statistically one of the most prolific receiver-quarterback tandems in NCAA history.
Western Michigan ranks 21st in the nation in rushing this season, thanks to a pair of underclassmen who aren't going anywhere after Monday's Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium — sophomore Jamauri Bogan and junior Jarvion Franklin, who've combined to average 186.5 yards a game.
That running-back duo gets its biggest test of the season in Wisconsin, which, with its giant offensive line, ranks second in the nation against the run, behind only No. 1-ranked Alabama.
"They're physical, they're tough, and any team that's played them, it's always been a fight," Bogan said Thursday of a Wisconsin team that comes in with three losses — to three of the top six teams in the country, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, all by a single touchdown.
"And I think it's not going to be anything different when we play them.
"They're going to fight and they're going to fight and they're going to fight. We better be ready for a fight. If we're not ready, they're going to roll all over us. So we must prepare ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally for that game."
Bogan, 5-foot-7 and 187 pounds from Union, N.J., began the season as Western Michigan's primary ball carrier, and topped 100 yards in each of the four nonconference games, including 189 against Illinois.
He got hurt in the Central Michigan game, though, a twisted ankle that lingered and limited him until the regular-season finale, when he rushed for 198 yards and a touchdown against Toledo.
Interestingly, his reaction to his own performance against Toledo was quite modest.
"It doesn't matter if I play or not, for me," Bogan said after that victory. "I don't really care about that. I enjoy actually seeing those (other) guys scoring touchdowns. That brings joy for me.
"I love seeing them do well.
"It's not about me. It's about every one else in that room."
In other words, Bogan got a whole lot of joy during his hiatus watching Franklin, the 6-foot, 228-pounder from Tinley Park, Ill.
Franklin was an absolute monster in Mid-American Conference play, topping 100 yards in six of conference games, including a stunning a school-record 281 yards and a touchdown against Akron.
For the season, Franklin rushed for 1,300 yards (100 average), and Bogan 882 yards (86.5 average). Ball security is huge, too; the entire Western Michigan offense, thanks in large part to the backs, has only lost four fumbles this season.
Western Michigan, for the season, averaged 237 rushing yards a game, and topped 300 several times. Its worst output was 114, which just so happened to come in its last game — the MAC championship victory against an Ohio team that's ranked fifth nationally against the run.
That's a bit eye-opening, given Wisconsin is even better, and much, much bigger along the line, with its 300 pounders, many of whom grew up in the state — the land of cheese and milk.
"I'm just trying to find a way to make a first down in the Cotton Bowl right now," offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Thursday.
Wisconsin held eight opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards this season, including in the Big Ten championship game, in which Penn State rushed for a mere 51. The Badgers held two opponents to fewer than 40 rushing yards, including Northwestern, which had 39.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is ranked 36th nationally against the pass and was the reason it lost in the Big Ten championship game and, thus, is playing in the Cotton Bowl and not the Rose Bowl.
So the attention, again, should be on Davis and Terrell, who've connected on 50 touchdown passes during their four-year careers. One more ties the NCAA tandem record, and there's a good chance it'll come Monday at Jerry's World.
So, again, the running backs will go to work in the shadows.
Hey, it's worked out just fine to this point.
"They had the balance that you're talking about," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "It's impressive to see."
Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: 1 Monday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: Western Michigan 13-0, Wisconsin 10-3
Line: Wisconsin by 7½