"It was a rock fight."
That was Western Michigan coach PJ Fleck after his team defeated rival Central Michigan 41-39 on Saturday in a game the Broncos never trailed. Despite holding the lead, Fleck and his team had to hold of a furious comeback effort by the Chippewas, who pulled within two points twice before the Broncos were able to ice away the final portion of the fourth quarter.
The game started off as well as the Broncos could imagine, with all but one of their first half drives eventually finding their way to the red zone. After a Central Michigan punt on their first drive, Zach Terrell hit Corey Davis for a short gain. Harmless enough as the play was, Nathan Ricketts came in late and was ejected for targeting Davis on the play, setting the tone for a penalty plagued first quarter for the Chippewas. CMU would commit 4 penalties for 37 yards in all, resulting in lost traction on multiple drives.
After the targeting call, Terrell would hit Daniel Braverman, who would take the pass from the left side of the field back across his offensive line, and all the way for a 44-yard score. It would be the first score in what turned out to be a big day for the redshirt junior.
After Chipppewa quarterback Cooper Rush misfired on the next drive - hitting a wide open Asantay Brown (a WMU safety) instead of Jesse Kroll - the Broncos would again look to score. The drive would stall, and Andrew Haldeman would come on for a 30-yard field goal attempt. After the kick went wide-right, Bronco fans were vocal about their distaste for the senior, who's miss would make him 3-for-7 on field goal attempts on the year.
But Haldeman would get redemption.
After Jahray Hayes would fumble in Western Michigan territory on the next CMU drive, Terrell and Bronco runningback Jarvion Franklin would get the Broncos back into scoring range but would stall. The 25-yard attempt by Haldeman would be good to make it a 10-7 game.
But that's when the Chippewas woke up.
Rush would hit Mark Chapman on a 52-yard bomb, with Chapman beating Darius Phillips deep down the sideline. Two plays later, Rush found Ben McCord on a 14-yard score to cut the deficit to 10-7 just before the end of the first quarter. But after a huge return by Phillips, the Broncos would get their score back on a Franklin touchdown, with the reigning MAC Player of the Year bowling over Kavon Frazier before rumbling into the end zone.
Rush would again lead his team down the field. This time, he would use medium gains to get into the red zone before hitting Chapman for a 17-yard score to make it 17-14. Western Michigan would answer with another field goal on the next drive - this time from 34-yards out - to make it 20-14, before the defenses would step up.
After a Chippewa punt pinned the Broncos deep, a holding call on the 2nd play of the ensuing drive would result in a safety making it 20-16 midway through the 2nd quarter. The Bronco defense would hold again to force another CMU punt, then would drive down the field yet again en route to a score. They would burn most of the clock before Terrell found Davis in the middle before the junior dove into the end zone for his first score of the game, and his 25th career receiving touchdown (tying him for 4th all-time).
With a 27-16 score heading into the half, both teams made adjustments, but defense must not have been in those discussions as neither team seemed to be able to consistently stop the other.
On the Broncos' first drive of the 2nd half, they used five minutes to go 66 yards en route to another Braverman touchdown. The score would extend the lead to 34-16, the largest for either team on the day. The Chippewas would respond with a six minute drive before stalling and having to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
But CMU wouldn't wait long to get the ball back and score again.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Malik Fountain stripped the ball from Franklin to give the Chippewas great field position. Rush would get his team all the way down to the 1-yard line before facing a 4th and goal situation. But with a touchdown needed, the junior executed a perfect play-action pass to McCord to cut the lead to 34-26. CMU would force their only Bronco punt on the next drive, with a three-and-out bringing on J Schroeder. The junior would shank the punt for a total distance of 27 yards, and a penalty on the Broncos would give the Chips the ball in WMU territory.
Rush would continue his mastery of the Bronco secondary. On his first play, he hit Kroll for a 15 yard gain. Two plays later, facing 3rd-and-long, he found Corey Willis for a 21-yard score to bring CMU to within two. On the ensuing two-point attempt, Rush would be picked by Austin Lewis. However, with the Chippewa faithful rocking Waldo Stadium, the Broncos appeared to be grasping for straws.
Before today, the last Western Michigan receiver to have three touchdown catches in a game was Jordan White. The All-American did so against Toledo in the infamous 66-63 game that holds the MAC single-game scoring record for points between two teams. And on a day when the Central-Western rivalry set their own single-game scoring record (the 80 total points usurping the 79 points in the 1995 affair), Braverman shined, capping off his game with a 64-yard catch and run down the sidelines on the very first play of the next Bronco drive. The score made it 41-32, with Haldeman's PAT getting blocked but still barely making it over the bar.
Rush would again lead his team down the field, before Hayes would make up for his fumble earlier in the game with a 15-yard score to pull within two once again. However, that would be the last time the Chippewas would touch the ball as the Broncos would slowly drive down the field, milking the clock.
But it was not all smooth sailing. With 1:47 to go, the Broncos faced a 4th and 3 from the CMU 9 yard line in a two point game. With the Bronco defense failing to stop the Chippewa offense most of the 2nd half, and a field goal still leaving a touchdown-to-win scenario on the board for CMU, Fleck elected to go for it.
"You wanna talk about the (coaches) headsets on that last play," Fleck said with a grin after the game. "That was a run (originally). That run got (changed) to a pass in three seconds and we ran it. Best player to best player. We (knew) we weren't going to stop them on defense."
And the play call was perfect. Terrell zipped a pass to Davis, who leaped over Frazier to make the game-ending catch at the CMU 1-yard line. Two kneel downs later, and the Broncos officially won their fourth Victory Cannon Trophy in the past five years.
"There was no question we were going to go for it," Fleck said on the call. "We felt the run play we had called was really, really good, and we knew (Jamauri) Bogan would get it. But with the way (Central Michigan) stacks the box, we had to check out of it."
Braverman, who is now 3-0 against Central Michigan (he missed the 2013 game due to injury, but played in the 2012 game as well as the past two years' games), was ecstatic with a win over the rival Chippewas.
"We want to win every game. We don't wake up early and do all this (preparation) to lose, especially against Central. This is just awesome. It's a great feeling to know you get in what you put in."
Overall, Terrell finished 15-for-22 passing with 262 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was 6-for-7 in the fourth quarter alone, with 103 yards in the deciding quarter (64 of which came on the Braverman touchdown). His rushing prowess was also key early on, with the junior finishing with 43 yards rushing on 5 carries.
His supporting cast was solid. Franklin, despite the fumble, was a rock for the Broncos. He finished with 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Jamauri Bogan had 49 yards on 12 carries as well. Davis and Braverman led the receiving corps. Davis led all receivers with 7 catches, but only finished with 52 yards and the lone score. Braverman finished with a season low 6 catches, but had 137 yards and the three scores.
LeVante Bellamy also had a 58 yard catch, along with Michael Henry having a huge 15 yard catch on 3rd down on the deciding drive. Asantay Brown had his first career interception and fumble recovery in the game, and also finished with 13 tackles, leading all players.
For the Chippewas, Rush was superb in a losing effort. He finished 23-for-32 with the lone interception (as well as the interception on the 2-point conversion). However, his 321 yards and 4 touchdowns paved the way for the comeback. He also had 39 yards on 5 carries, with a 26 yard scamper leading the team for longest run. Hayes finished with 52 yards and a score on 8 carries and Martez Walker led all Chippewas with 11 carries, but for only 32 yards.
Receiving-wise, Rush spread the ball around well. Kroll led all receivers with 6 catches (for 75 yards), but Chapman, Anthony Rice, and McCord all had four catches apiece as well. Chapman finished with 92 yards and a score, Rice had 66 yards receiving, and McCord had 41 yards and a pair of scores to continue to dominate the MAC at the tight end position.
The Western Michigan Broncos (2-3, 1-0) now head to face the Ohio Bobcats next Saturday. The Central Michigan Chippewas (2-4, 1-1) return home to face their second straight opponent coming off a bye week in the form of the Buffalo Bulls.