The toughest test of the year for the 2016 Western Michigan Broncos was supposed to be their first: the Northwestern Wildcats. And by all appearances, they’ve passed with flying colors.
A 10-win team that upset eventual PAC-12 Champion Stanford last year, the Wildcats are expected to contend for the B1G West division title. With visions of a 9- or 10-win season, they were downed by the Broncos 22-21 in an exciting back-and-forth game.
Western Michigan just purely outplayed the Wildcats. They were able to consistently get a good push on both lines, something that is rare for the underdog in B1G-MAC games, to the point where they out rushed their foe by a margin of 198-123 (and more yards/rush!). Northwestern was able to contain Corey Davis, but Zach Terrell was still able to lead the Bronco pass game to a 218-196 yard advantage in the passing game as well, albeit, on more attempts.
But the most damning stat of the game should be the time of possession. Northwestern, known for their defense and run game that is lead by Justin Jackson, finished 18 minutes behind P.J. Fleck’s crew, as WMU held the ball for over 39 minutes in the game. It was a spectacular performance, and one that should put the rest of the MAC on notice.
From the start, it looked like Northwestern would be unstoppable. They drove down the field, converting two 4th downs, en route to a Jackson touchdown run from 1-yard out. But after the Broncos were forced to punt, their defense stood tall to force a 3-and-out to let the offense get their groove.
It would start from there, with the ensuing drive, they would get into field goal range, where true freshman Butch Hampton lined up for a 50-yard kick. Despite putting it dead between the posts, the ball clanged off the crossbar to keep it at 7-0.
The ensuing Northwestern drive resulted in a Wildcat punt that put the ball at the WMU 1-yard line. But a 19-play, 68-yard drive took up over 10 minutes of clock, and Hampton got his redemption, making a 47-yard field goal to put the Broncos on the board. Western Michigan would stop the Wildcats on 4th down, and get another short field goal just before the half. A likely pass interference on a NU defender went uncalled to stall the drive, preventing the Broncos from grabbing the lead into the break.
But P.J. Fleck’s crew only got stronger in the 2nd half as the game opened up. Coming out, Terrell directed a beautiful quick drive for 6, as he found D’Wayne Eskridge for the freshman’s first career touchdown.
Back-to-back three-and-outs would give the Wildcats good field position, as they quickly struck back a few minutes later, but the long burn of the Bronco offense, lead by Jamauri Bogan this time, got another short field goal to regain the lead at 16-14. Bogan’s big gains on 3rd down kept the drive alive, as they went 63 yards in 16 plays, taking up 7:22 of the clock.
Not to be deterred, the Wildcats struck back with a three minute scoring drive of their own, with Jackson getting a 37-yard catch to set-up a 1-yard scoring run, his 3rd of the game. But in a 21-16 game, Terrell, Bogan, and Davis drove down the field in another 10+ play drive, scoring on the sophomore running back’s 1-yard run on 4th and goal.
The key moment of the game came on the ensuing drive. Clayton Thorson led his team down the field, getting them to 1st and goal at the WMU 6. On the first play of the downs, the quarterback took the snap and rumbled towards the goal line. He was met by Robert Spillane, who stripped the ball away towards the sideline. The ball rolled towards the end zone, and WMU DB Davonte Ginwright grabbed the ball before it went out of bounds for a touchback.
He then threw the ball back into play as he fell out of bounds. Northwestern players fell on the ball for what would’ve been a touchdown (albeit, being brought back for a holding call on the play). Madness soon ensued. Northwestern fans believed they had a touchdown. Bronco fans believed they had thrown the game deciding turnover back to their foes. The play went to replay, where it was determined that.....Thorson did indeed fumble before his knee touched. The moment Ginwright touched the ball, the play was dead, ruled the referees (credit: Inside NU).
Carrington Thompson made a great catch on 3rd down, and Bogan picked up a 3rd and 2 three plays later to ice the 22-21 win. It was P.J. Fleck’s first win over a “Power 5” opponent, and the program’s first win over a Big Ten opponent since 2008, when they beat Illinois (who they play in two weeks) at Ford Field.
Honestly, the Broncos only failed to outdo the Wildcats with touchdowns. Justin Jackson was as advertised, but his 24 carries for 124 yards wasn’t enough to compensate for the complete lack of run game behind him. The rest of his teammates combined for 8 carries and -1 yards. Thorson finished 15-for-22 with 196 yards, which is respectable, but his fumble will haunt him as it cost Northwestern the game. Austin Carr had 5 catches for 75 yards as the most reliable NU receiver.
Terrell did great on the road, going 26-for-36 including a score. He only had 218 yards, but he added 40 on the ground, working out of pressure often and making plays when needed. Bogan was a monster, getting 22 carries for 103 yards and the other score. His work on 3rd and 4th down was especially noteworthy, as they kept numerous Bronco drives alive.
Corey Davis had a quiet 70 yard, 7 catch game. He didn’t score, and never really got going, but did have some big catches when needed. Bronco fans can be OK with that, as the Wildcats were possibly the best defense WMU will see in non-conference play. This will allow them to work out kinks with the WR2 position, which was interesting to say the least. Michael Henry was more productive, getting 37 yards on 5 catches, but Carrington Thompson had 20 yards on 2 catches, including the big 3rd down catch in the “kill the clock” drive. Neither stood out, though, to know who is the man going forward. Jarvion Franklin had 68 yards combined, getting 38 on the ground and 30 in the passing game, a solid multi-dimensional option throughout the day.
The Broncos now have cleared their biggest hurdle en route to a potential 14-0 season. The Toledo Rockets look to be the next largest, but with that game not until the end of the season, the possibility of an undefeated season is alive and well. Following next weekend’s game against NC Central of the FCS, the Broncos face a tough road. They’ll head to Illinois before facing a solid Georgia Southern squad to close out the non-conference slate. They’ll then head to Mt. Pleasant to face rival Central Michigan, then head back home to face NIU, whom they haven’t beaten since 2008 as well. Getting to 6-0 at that point won’t be easy, but should they be, they’ll be up there trying to take the “Group of Five” crown from Houston.