The past 365 days have been a time of firsts for the brown and gold.
It all began on Christmas Eve, 2015. Tied entering the fourth quarter of the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl, Western Michigan’s offense exploded for three touchdowns to conquer Middle Tennessee. The 45-31 victory served as the first bowl win in the program’s 111-year history. Somehow, the Broncos would reach even further heights one year later.
The first double-digit win season, the first AP poll ranking, the first College GameDay appearance — all attained by a program that fared 1-11 a mere three seasons ago. But this is not the same program from 2013. This is a program with a culture and a direction, one that embraces the mantra “row the boat” and features players even Nick Saban and Urban Meyer would love to have on their team.
P.J. Fleck is the captain of the ship. The enthusiastic, fervent young coach has motivated and inspired players in football and in life during his stint in Kalamazoo. Fleck built Western Michigan into a 12-0 program by fielding the top recruiting class in the MAC four-consecutive years. His seniors — quarterback Zach Terrell, wide receiver Corey Davis, offensive tackle Taylor Moton — are the leaders in this program and their experience strongly translates to the field.
On the opening week, the Broncos faced their most adversity all year. The brown and gold packed their bags and traveled to Evanston, IL, home of the Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats, members of the Big Ten Conference (arguably the strongest conference in 2016), were coming off of a successful 10-3 season in 2015, defeating the likes of Stanford and Wisconsin in the process.
In a defensive-oriented battle, the Broncos and Wildcats traded scores throughout in Evanston. In the final quarter, the Broncos constructed a 75-yard drive, while trailing 21-16. Northwestern’s defense held its own at the goal line, but on fourth and goal with 5:38 remaining, Jamauri Bogan punched it in, barely crossing the plane.
Northwestern would receive a final opportunity to earn a home victory over the MAC foe. The final offensive play for the Wildcats would be one that paved the way for the Broncos’ perfect season. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson handled the snap and sprinted toward the left portion of the end zone on a designed QB-keeper. But inches before the goal line, Robert Spillane of the Broncos stripped the ball loose from Thorson’s hand. Western Michigan’s Davonte Ginwright inexplicably tried to prevent the ball from landing out of bounds, but luckily for the Broncos, his right foot was planted out of bounds before attempting to force the ball into the field of play.
Western Michigan survived to win 22-21, the only nail-biter Fleck’s team has encountered this season. The next eleven games for the Broncos would be defined by execution and domination, winning with an advantage of at least two touchdowns (+23.5 point differential per game in 2016) in each ensuing matchup.
The Broncos pummeled North Carolina Central of the FCS 70-21 in the first game at Waldo Stadium. But one week after the victory, it was Western Michigan’s duty to challenge another Big Ten team on the road.
Western Michigan entered Champaign, IL as slight favorites over the Fighting Illini. But the Broncos dominated all facets of the game, annihilating Illinois 34-10 in the process. Bogan excelled at running back, rushing for 189 yards and two touchdowns. With the victory, the Broncos improved to 2-0 in Big Ten play. Illinois finished the season with two conference victories, while Michigan State (a 2015 College Football Playoff participant), Rutgers, and Purdue finished with fewer Big Ten wins than the MAC West champion.
At 3-0, the Broncos’ next opponent was a familiar one. The Georgia Southern Eagles destroyed Western Michigan a season ago, 43-17. The Eagles’ triple option attack with running back Matt Breida seemed unstoppable in the 2015 matchup in Statesboro, GA, but Fleck and the Broncos had taken large strides since the humiliating defeat.
Western Michigan returned the favor in Kalamazoo, defeating the former Sun Belt heavyweight 49-31, led by junior cornerback Darius Phillips. The playmaker unleashed his speed on a 100-yard kickoff return and 70-yard interception return, both good for touchdowns. Phillips currently ranks first in the nation in interception return yards with 263 and pick-six touchdowns with three, contributing to the scoring effort in a multitude of ways.
Rivalry week. After a 4-0 non-conference start, Western Michigan traveled 140 miles to Mt. Pleasant to challenge the Chippewas. But at the time, the Chippewas were the MAC team garnering national attention. Despite a 3-1 record heading into the contest, Central Michigan took the college football world by storm in week two, upsetting Oklahoma State in Stillwater on a Hail Mary-and-lateral trick play — a play albeit controversial, will forever serve as one of college football’s greatest upset victories.
But the game ended up lacking competition. Western Michigan throttled its in-state rival 49-10, led by the offensive big three of Zach Terrell, Jarvion Franklin, and Corey Davis. Franklin took over primary running back duties in this game, after Bogan suffered an ankle injury on his first carry. But Franklin exhibited dominance similar to that of Bogan. He rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns against Central Michigan, initiating a six-game streak of 100-plus yards complemented with at least one touchdown.
The next box Fleck checked off was a victory over Northern Illinois. The Huskies set the standard of MAC excellence since the turn of the newest decade. Six-straight MAC titles, a BCS Bowl appearance, and a Heisman finalist are only a few accolades Northern Illinois achieved in recent history. But the Huskies also dominated Western Michigan over the time period, earning seven-straight victories over the Broncos.
But the tables had turned. Northern Illinois, Fleck’s alma mater, entered the game with a 1-4 record but played relentless on the field. The Huskies fought hard in Kalamazoo but were outmatched by their opponent, 45-30. Terrell, currently the nation’s most accurate quarterback, led the way passing 18-of-24 for 327 yards and three scores. One touchdown was delivered to Davis, who made a spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone — one of the many highlights created by the senior receiver this season. With the victory, Western Michigan improved to 6-0, attaining bowl eligibility for the third-consecutive year under Fleck.
Following the victory, the AP poll ranked Western Michigan (6-0) No. 24 in the nation. This marked the first time in school history that the Broncos’ name was etched into the rankings.
Through the season’s midway point, Western Michigan earned honors as the only team in college football to yet commit a turnover. This significant statistic was key in preserving dominant Bronco victories all season long.
Trap games are common in college football. They occur when a road team overlooks an opponent, so the home team responds with fire and energy to claim the upset victory. San Diego State lost to South Alabama. Virginia Tech lost to Syracuse. Houston lost to SMU. Michigan lost to Iowa. Finishing undefeated is a difficult and arduous process — one no Group of Five team has accomplished since the 2010 TCU Horned Frogs of the Mountain West finished 13-0.
Akron was viewed as the trap game for the Broncos in 2016. The Zips entered the field with a 4-2 record and a potent offense led by quarterback Thomas Woodson. But the offense that racked up 65 against Marshall struggled to find the end zone at InfoCision Stadium against the 6-0 Broncos. Western Michigan silenced the Zips, 41-0, behind Franklin’s noteworthy day on the ground. The junior halfback amassed a program-record 281 yards rushing in the shutout, in what was a record-breaking season in Kalamazoo.
There was one setback in the game, however. Western Michigan turned the ball over for the first time in 2016 on a Davon Tucker fumble. But if there’s ever a time to turn it over, it is in a 41-0 beatdown of an opponent. At the conclusion of the regular season, Western Michigan ranks first in fewest turnovers in the FBS with five. Winning games is made simpler when infrequently providing opponents extra possessions off turnovers. Many quarterbacks throw an interception in a game, but Terrell has only thrown one all season, occurring in the Eastern Michigan game.
Eastern Michigan played in a bowl in 1987 and has yet to play in one since. But the Eagles share a similar redemption story with Western Michigan. Eastern Michigan jumped to a 5-2 start under coach Chris Creighton, finishing the regular season 7-5. The Eagles forced Terrell’s only interception of the year and played the Broncos closer than any team did, outside of Northwestern, in 2016. Western Michigan claimed the Michigan MAC Trophy with a 45-31 victory over Eastern Michigan in Kalamazoo to jump to 8-0, matching the best start in program history from 1941.
Tuesday night MACtion began the subsequent week, but immediately before the Ball State game, Western Michigan earned a new ranking. The Broncos were labeled the 23rd best team in the nation by the playoff committee, a conglomeration of athletic directors, former coaches, and other college football followers that single-handedly decide the playoff teams. The controversial spot was six slots lower than their AP ranking, but the Broncos immediately attempted to prove a point against Ball State in Muncie hours later.
The Broncos thrashed the Cardinals with a 52-20 victory. Davis was vital in the domination, achieving a career-high 272 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the victory. Western Michigan, unable to climb up from No. 21, would continue playing on Tuesday nights, next matched up against Kent State in the rain.
Facing a 3-6 Kent State team, the contest featured an uncharacteristic start. The struggling Golden Flashes recovered a fumble for a touchdown and quickly built a 14-0 lead. Seconds into the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 21 apiece. But Fleck pulled ahead of the feisty Golden Flashes by continually running the ball in the wet, muddy conditions to preserve a victory. The defense forcing a safety created a turning point in the game, potentially salvaging the Broncos’ season. Western Michigan capitalized off of its two ensuing possessions, claiming a 37-21 victory in Kent.
With the hard-fought victory, Western Michigan was rewarded with remaining stagnant at 21st in the polls. But more importantly, fellow Group of Five Bronco, Boise State, passed Western Michigan, checking in at No. 20.
But Boise State had lost to Wyoming, while Western Michigan had an unblemished record, dominating opponent after opponent each week.
For Western Michigan’s next game, ESPN lugged cameras and tents and recognizable college football personalities to Kalamazoo. For the first time since 2003, College GameDay selected a MAC campus as the host location. Despite facing a 2-8 Buffalo team, the pregame show decided to highlight the matchup as a result of Western Michigan’s perfect 10-0 record.
On the November morning, the streets of Kalamazoo were flooded with brown and gold from the fans and white from the sleet. Crowds chanted “row the boat” throughout the three-hour spectacle, one that concluded with Lee Corso donning the head of Buster Bronco, next to Western Michigan alumnus Greg Jennings.
Under the national spotlight, Western Michigan held the Bulls scoreless in a statement 38-0 victory. There have only been 18 FBS-vs.-FBS shutouts this season and Western Michigan can claim two of them. Terrell passed for a season-high 445 yards and four touchdowns. Davis had a memorable day catching Terrell’s darts and bombs in another 100-yard performance, contributing to the program’s 11-0 start.
But Western Michigan had not even clinched a spot in the MAC Championship Game yet. Toledo awaited, sporting an impressive 9-2 record and well armed with offensive weapons Logan Woodside and Kareem Hunt.
On Black Friday, in front of 24,191 at Waldo Stadium, Western Michigan’s defense set up a 7-0 start on an immediate pick-six. But the two strongest teams in the conference fought neck-and-neck in the first half. The game flipped in Western Michigan’s favor once the Broncos stifled Toledo on fourth down while up 17-14, converting the turnover on downs into a touchdown of their own.
On this scoring drive, Corey Davis caught a seven-yard pass on second down. But it might be one of the most monumental catches of the storied receiver’s career. With the reception, Davis passed Nevada’s Trevor Insley (1996-99) to become NCAA’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Currently, Davis owns 5,061 career yards — one of two receivers in history to pass the 5,000 mark.
Three immediate second half touchdowns distanced the Broncos from Toledo, resulting in a 55-35 finish. Western Michigan earned its first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2000 and its first 12-0 season in history. Only Alabama can also claim a perfect record through the 2016’s regular season.
Following the performance, Western Michigan broke a three-week streak of ranking No. 21 in the committee’s poll, rising to No. 17. However, Navy (9-2) of the American Conference is ranked No. 19, with a conference championship against Temple and rivalry game against Army remaining. Only one of the two will be selected as the Group of Five champion for a Cotton Bowl appearance.
Before earning a trip to Arlington, Western Michigan must defeat Ohio (8-4) in Detroit on Friday night. The Broncos, who have yet to play a tight game with a conference opponent, earn a rare opportunity to enter bowl season 13-0. For reference, only Clemson accomplished this goal in 2015.
Win or lose on Friday, 2016 has been the most successful season in Western Michigan history. Fleck removed the program from the cellar and continues to break through the ceiling each week, constantly achieving new heights in Kalamazoo. One season after Western Michigan’s first bowl win, it may earn the opportunity to participate in one of college football’s elite bowl games.
Unfortunately for Western Michigan, barring some sort of miracle from the football Gods, the Broncos will not be selected to compete in the College Football Playoff. Perhaps to enter the top-four, Western Michigan will need to earn the reputation that Boise State earned in the late-2000s. With USC and Michigan State on the schedule next season, Western Michigan can continue to build up the program’s name and earn more respect from the committee as time passes. A load of seniors, including Terrell and Davis, will leave the program, but as long as Fleck is at the helm, the Broncos may continue to do what they do best —row the boat.