"We didn't earn it. Whether we would've won that game or lost it, which we did, we didn't earn it."
That was WMU head football coach P.J. Fleck in his opening comments after last night's stunning 27-23 loss to the hands of the Nicholls Colonels. It was the first Bronco loss to an FCS foe since 1996 to Eastern Illinois in Al Molde's final season. Before that it was 1993, when a Youngstown State team, coached by future Ohio State and now current Akron professor Jim Tressell, came in and narrowly defeated Western Michigan 17-13 on a late sack-fumble-TD. That YSU team would go on to win the FCS National Title.
This Nicholls team is not expected to contend for titles. Not for FCS titles, not for playoff spots. Nothing. In fact, their conference took a poll of all 8 of their head football coaches. All 8 unanimously picked the Colonels to finish last in the Southland Conference. Even their own coach Charlie Stubbs thought this year would be long. And now, he has his first win over a team not from the NAIA since 2010.
0-21 until last night against teams not named Evangel.
"It's been a process," Stubbs said after the game. "When I came in here (in 2010), we only had 56 players. Now we have 110. We have scout teams. We have competition. It's still hard to recruit (decent) linemen at our level of football, but we've got to where we have some decent linemen, and when you have a chance up front, you have a chance."
And that they did. The line gave the game's starter, and Nicholls' 3rd-string QB entering fall camp, Kalen Henderson plenty of time to make plays with his arm and legs. The Colonel line gave Marcus Washington plenty of holes to run through on his way to a 18 carry, 65 yard, 2 TD night. That line helped 4th-string QB Tuskani Figaro get his feet wet after burning a red-shirt. He ran his way into Nicholls history as the QB that led the 4th-quarter comeback on the road for the first non-NAIA win in 3 years for the Colonels.
"The line helped me out and have me have an easy read (on the zone read)," Figaro said in the hallways after the game. "I made some mistakes, but the reads were pretty simple because of the line."
The sophomore from Lafayette, Louisiana did make mistakes. But the mistakes he made, in part due to the system he was in, were hardly noticeable outside of a sudden drop in production against the Bronco defense. The same Bronco defense that held Michigan State and THEIR much more athletic offensive weapons.
"I told Tuskani before the game, if we had a chance to win this football game, there was no redshirt," Stubbs said. "Tuskani is more of a runner, but he's getting to be a better thrower and made some nice throws today. However, I just didn't open (the playbook) all up to him today because Western Michigan put us in tough field position and we couldn't afford a mistake. I wanted (WMU) to beat us and not have us beat us by throwing a pick or (fumbling the ball)."
What did Figaro do with that "closed" playbook? Ran for 72 yards on 15 attempts and led the go-ahead and "touchdown forcing" field goal drives in the 4th quarter. That 2nd field goal included a huge pass on 2nd-and-10 from the Nicholls 20-yard line. After going just 1-for-6 (despite drop on the previous drive), Figaro let a pass fly on play-action for a key 55-yard gain to Demon Bolt. The play set up the Colonels in Bronco territory (where they would eventually run some more and burn clock before the field goal), kept Western Michigan from getting the ball in good field position, and changed the momentum for good in the game.
But Figaro and Henderson, who was 8-for-11 for 159 yards despite an interception and had 87 yards on the ground on just 6 carries before getting injured, were not the only stars for the Colonels last night. The defense held their own. They forced two Tyler VanTubbergen interceptions and stopped the Broncos twice on 4th down, including a huge goal-line stand in the 3rd quarter.
Stubbs admitted to being short depth-wise at the defensive line, but noted their scrappy play really helped change the tides of the game. His pressure on TVT was constant, as VanTubbergen was hit constantly throughout the night on his 44 drop-backs. They got an early sack, hit the guy multiple times forcing incompletions, batted a couple passes down at the line, and of course got the two interceptions. They did give up 231 yards on the ground, but held a decent Bronco offense to just 23 points.
Now for the Broncos.
First, stats, I guess.
TVT went 24-for-43 for 254 yards, but threw 2 interceptions. His main target was freshman Corey Davis, who had his first 100 yard game with 116 yards on 8 catches. Dareyon Chance and Brian Fields became the first Bronco running-back duo to rush for over 100 yards since Fields and now-suspended Tevin Drake did it against Kent State in October, 2010. J Schroeder had a great game punting with 5 punts averaging 42 yards including 2 inside the 20.
But the Bronco defense failed to stop the mobile attack of Henderson and Figaro. 40 carries, 222 yards rushing between the two and Colonels running-back Marcus Washington. The 225 yards passing are probably what hurt more, especially that 55 yard bomb to shift the final minutes of the game in full favor of Nicholls.
"Nicholls did a tremendous job going up-and-down the field on our defense," Fleck said when asked about what he personally felt changed the tide of the game. "Our defense is one of our strengths of our football team. We were out of position, we weren't communicating, we weren't urgent enough, and I think we just got outworked."
On the shaky play of his offensive line, Fleck didn't hold back.
"(Tyler) got hit a lot. I thought they did a nice job of establishing the run and had the outside zone play that was working. But Tyler got hit way too much. We can sit there and say 'Oh, we got 4 out of 5 that have never played a game (at the collegiate level) before,' but who cares? You have a job to do, do your job."
The question now for Bronco fans becomes, "Where does the team go from here?" Do they rebound and take this loss and build from it? Or is this the team we will see all season long? Obviously, the Broncos have struggled to stop the mobile quarterbacks, as Michigan State back-up Connor Cook had some success with the zone-read last weekend as well. Of the teams left on the schedule this season, (Northwestern, Kent State, Toledo, UMass, EMU, and NIU) all have decently mobile quarterbacks. Add in decent looking teams in Buffalo and Ball State (ok, good team in Ball State) and you have a suddenly very tough schedule in every team you face (except CMU, but more on that later).
UMass and EMU are still UMass and EMU. However, they suddenly hold the Bronco kryptonite in the zone-read. Should the Broncos continue to struggle, Western Michigan could be looking at their first 0 win season in program history.