Western Michigan dodges COVID outbreak, then has its way with Nevada in Detroit bowl
Detroit — This is where Western Michigan wanted to make its mark, at Ford Field, in downtown Detroit.
Granted, the Broncos had visions of defining their season in the Mid-American Conference championship game, but they settled for a bowl title instead.
Sean Tyler took his team's opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and led a bruising ground attack, and Western Michigan, having dodged a COVID outbreak earlier in the week, never looked back in steamrolling short-handed Nevada, 52-24, before 22,321 in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field on Monday.
Tyler also had a 70-yard run in the third quarter, being tripped up just before reaching the end zone, and the sophomore finished with 146 rushing yards on 14 attempts in being named the game's MVP, as Western Michigan outgained Nevada, 514-242, in total offense. The Broncos rushed for 352 yards.
After the game, standing on the field amid the celebration, Tyler declared Western Michigan would be back at Ford Field in 2022, albeit a few weeks earlier.
"Our team has been a championship team all season. We just had our ups and downs, that's just how life is," Tyler said of the Broncos, who finished 8-5 with lots of highs (like a win over New Year's Six participant Pittsburgh) and lows (like losses to state rivals Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan).
"I just see the talent that we have. ... I see the talent that other people don't see."
Well, a lot of people saw it Monday.
The Broncos trailed for all of 13 seconds in the bowl game. After holding Nevada (8-5) to a field goal on its first possession, Tyler brought the pro-brown-and-gold crowd to life, taking the kickoff at the goal line and scampering untouched to the house, thanks to a big block from redshirt sophomore Braden Fiske.
Less than four minutes later, Western Michigan redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby came out of a time out and, on third-and-long, hit sophomore receiver Corey Crooms along the left sideline en route to a 74-yard touchdown.
And the party was on.
"It's great, it's a win," fifth-year Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. "I'm just excited that the guys are champions. We have a lot to get better at.
"The future is now. This bowl game matters.
"It will help us into the offseason."
The Broncos dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, their offensive line opening up holes for Tyler, and for senior Jaxson Kincade to rush for 105 yards on 17 carries, with a pair of 7-yard touchdown runs.
The win was extra sweet for Kincade, who played his first three years at Nevada.
He spent the last several days reconnecting with ex-teammates, then spent Monday showing no mercy.
"It felt surreal, man" Kincade said. "It was great to go out this way."
Defensively, Western Michigan allowed 121 rushing yards and 121 passing yards, and made life miserable for sophomore quarterback Nate Cox, who, at 6-foot-9, is supposedly the tallest quarterback in college history. He got his first collegiate start with Nevada star QB Carson Strong opting out to focus on the NFL.
The Broncos, who had the top defensive unit in the MAC, limited Cox to 12-for-22 passing for 121 yards, with most of that production coming late in the game when things were well out of reach.
Nevada not only was missing its starting QB, but most of its coaching staff, too. Head coach Jay Norvell took the Colorado State job and took several coaches with him, including his offensive coordinator, and the team's defensive coordinator left for Washington State.
"Those guys are special to me, the guys who stayed," Nevada defensive end Sam Hammond said, giving a nod to interim coach Vai Taua. "It sucks we came up short."
Eleby was 8-for-16 for 162 yards with two touchdown passes, including a 20-yarder to senior tight end Brett Borske in the second quarter. Eleby went to hand off the football, but held it and found Borske wide open up the middle for the score.
The Broncos were aggressive on offense of the day, going for it on fourth-and-five from Nevada's 31 in the second quarter; Tyler picked it up with a 9-yard rush, and two plays later, Kincade scored.
That made it 31-10 Western Michigan at halftime.
The Broncos' offense more than got by with limited production from star sophomore receiver Skyy Moore (one catch, 10 yards), who was double-teamed all day, and zero production from junior running back La'Darius Jefferson, who was a late scratch with COVID.
The Broncos also found out just before kickoff that junior safety Jake Moertl and senior linebacker A.J. Thomas (U-D Jesuit), starters on defense, were out with COVID.
But at least the game went on — which is more than you can say for four bowl games and counting, including the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, which lost Boise State to COVID and leaves Central Michigan heading to the Sun Bowl to play Washington State. Just getting a bowl game in is a win.
"Every time you pick up your phone, someone else is gone, or another game is gone," Lester said.
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Eleby, a redshirt sophomore, had a 1-yard TD run on a keeper to start the second half, after Tyler's long run. Kincaide added another 7-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter, and redshirt junior running back Trae Allen capped the scoring with a 3-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Ali Fayad, a senior defensive end from Dearborn and the MAC defensive player of the year, had 1.5 sacks to finish his final season with 13. Senior cornerback Dorian Jackson picked off Cox's last pass of the game.
Nevada came into the game No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin, at plus-16, including 12 fumble recoveries. This game finished even at one, and Western Michigan didn't fumble.
Devonte Lee led the tepid Nevada attack with 85 rushing yards and a touchdown, a 1-yard rush early in the second quarter. Sophomore receiver Jamaal Bell had seven catches for 75 yards and an 18-yard TD reception, and Toa Taua, another senior running back and younger brother of the interim coach, had Nevada's other touchdown, a 1-yard run in the third quarter.
The Nevada highlights were few and far between.
"We emphasize on the defensive line being the hammer and not the nail," said Western Michigan senior Ralph Holley, an Orchard Lake St. Mary's alum.
The bowl win was Lester's first, and Western Michigan's second, after the 2015 Bahamas Bowl — a bowl win that, Lester often is quick to point out, preceded the Broncos' appearance in the New Year's Six 2016. Western Michigan now is 2-8 all-time in bowl games.
The win also sends longtime WMU athletic director Kathy Beauregard off with one heck of a retirement gift.
Plus, it snaps a streak of 10 consecutive bowl losses by Michigan's three MAC teams.
"This is huge," said Fayad, whose team set a number of Quick Lane Bowl records in the seventh playing of the game — among them, most points, largest margin of victory (28), total rushing yards, fewest yards allowed and longest kickoff return. "Things didn't go our way this season.
"We're leaving as champions, and it feels great."