In their last six tries, the Western Michigan Broncos (8-5) had lost every bowl game they had played in. One trip to the Bahamas has changed all that as they walked away with a 45-31 victory in the Popeye's Bahamas Bowl on Christmas Eve.
The game started with a bang. Middle Tennessee State (7-6) struck first with a quick 5-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a Richie James 46-yard touchdown run. The Broncos responded three plays later on a Jamauri Bogan 62-yard touchdown run, but the Blue Raiders quickly answered with a Brent Stockstill 44-yard pass to James to make it 14-7, all within the first four minutes.
Western Michigan drove down the field, but after Jarvion Franklin got the Broncos to the 1-yard line, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for an obvious elbow to the face of a Blue Raider defender. The drive would stall, and Andrew Haldeman would miss the 30-yard field goal to keep the Broncos from closing the gap. It was Haldeman's first miss since the Central Michigan game on October 10th.
After WMU forced a three-and-out, the Broncos would again drive down the field. The drive would stall at the 30 and Haldeman would come on for redemption. His 47-yard try would easily go through to make it 14-10. The Blue Raiders would quickly run down the field to the 5-yard line, but would stall and have to settle for a 23-yard field goal to make it 17-10. Two plays later, Corey Davis would take a short catch and go 80-yards to the house to tie up the game at 17-all to end the 1st quarter with both teams flexing their offensive prowless.
After the Broncos forced a punt to open the 2nd quarter, Terrell would make an ill-advised play. Being forced out of the pocket, he attempted a dump off throw on a screen. However, Justin Akins was waiting for it to pick it off and give the Blue Raiders great field position in the red zone. But the Western Michigan defense would hold on back-to-back stops from the 1-yard line to keep Middle Tennessee State off the board.
Western Michigan would get out of the end zone thanks to a big play to Davis, but would be forced to punt. They would then hold the Blue Raiders to a punt after a holding call brought back an 85-yard touchdown to keep it a tie game. The Bronco drive would result in a three-and-out, giving MTSU the ball near midfield near the end of the half.
On a quick screen play, Jordan Parker stiff armed Grant DePalma to pick up a first down. However, while fighting for extra yards, Darius Phillips was able to strip the ball away from the back, and quickly fell on it to give the Broncos the ball back with just over two minutes to go in the half. The Broncos would move the ball, but a pair of sacks would kill the drive at midfield. After a punt, the Blue Raiders ran out the clock to enter halftime at a 17-17 standstill.
Out of the half, PJ Fleck used solid running to move the ball down the field. Eventually, faced with a 4th-and-1, he would elect to go for it, and a hand-off to Bogan went 46-yards for the go-ahead score to make it 24-17 early in the 3rd.
From there, the teams would trade punts for a bit. After the first two punts gave the Raiders and Broncos breathing room, the second MTSU punt pinned WMU inside their own 5-yard line. A holding call brought back a big run by Bogan, and Davis narrowly avoided being brought down for a safety before Western Michigan was able to punt the ball away from their end zone. The ball would hit a Bronco player and give the Blue Raiders the ball at the WMU 32 yard line. Two plays later, Christian Collis took a run 17-yards for the tying score just before the end of the 3rd quarter to set-up an exciting 4th in a 24-24 game.
On the next drive, a fumbled snap put the Broncos in a bad spot, but on 2nd-and-15, Terrell hit Daniel Braverman on an out route. The speedy junior had all the room he needed to turn the corner and turn on the burners for a 68-yard score to make it 31-24 and give Western Michigan the lead again.
After a surprise onside kick - that was recovered by Phillips - was negated by an offsides call, the Blue Raiders went to work following a solid return by Ed Batties. A big catch-and-run by James got Middle Tennessee into Bronco territory, and Stockstill hit his wide-out for a 29-yard touchdown - his 3rd of the game - to tie the game back up at 31.
Bogan would go back to work on the next drive, taking a handoff and breaking through for a big play. Nearing the red zone, the freshman appeared to get tired and was taken down from behind on a 61-yard rush. A couple plays later, he would get the handoff at the 1 to score his third touchdown of the day to make it 38-31.
On the next drive, after back-to-back incompletions and a false start, Stockstill stepped up in the pocket and delivered a rocket down the field. Unfortunately for him, Rontavious Atkins - a fifth year senior who had played in the 2011 Little Caesar's Pizza bowl and 2014 Potato Bowl losses, among going through the end of the Cubit era and 2013 1-11 seasons - stepped up and picked off the pass, returning it to the 1-yard line. Bogan would punch it in for his 4th score of the game to make it 45-31 with five minutes to play.
The Raiders were unable to get anything going on their next drive, taking a bad sack on 3rd down. After Stockstill's deep ball fell well long on 4th down, the Broncos took over with great position and a two-score lead. Fleck continuously fed Bogan, and after a first down to the 5, they assumed the victory formation to put a cap on their first ever bowl victory.
In the winning effort, Terrell finished 18-for-26 for 297 yards and a pair of scores. He did throw an interception, but it was the first game he was able to throw a pick and was still able to get the win. Bogan finished with a monster game of 215 yards on 19 carries and four scores. At one point, he was averaging nearly 17 yards per rush, with that average falling back to 11 yards per rush as the Broncos ran out the clock and get their final two scores.
Jarvion Franklin finished with 36 yards on 7 carries, but largely didn't see the field after the penalty in the 1st quarter and a fumble (that went out of bounds) in the 3rd. Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman each finished with over 100 yards and a score in the game, with Davis getting 8 catches for 183 yards and Braverman finishing with 5 catches for 101 yards. The score for Davis was a career long for him, and moved him into sole 2nd place among WMU receivers for career touchdowns. His 33 scores trails only Greg Jennings and his 39 for most all-time.
For the Blue Raiders, Brent Stockstill had a solid game. He finished 26-for-39 for 327 yards and three scores. However, his lone interception was a back-breaker as it gave the Broncos the insurance score to all but put the game away late. Richie James had a great game, finishing with 187 total yards (61 rushing, 126 receiving) and three scores (1 rushing, 2 receiving). Shane Tucker finished with just 30 yards on 10 carries, and was held in check, forcing MTSU to throw often. Ed Batties finished with 88 yards on 5 catches.
The two teams combined for 1055 yards, with the Broncos gaining 282 on the ground alone. Despite a poor day on 3rd down - they went 3-for-12 after coming in averaging a conversion rate of 47% (12th nationally) - Western Michigan was able to get the win and earn back-to-back 8-win seasons, as well as the first bowl victory.
The Broncos now head into the off-season returning a good portion of their offense and defense. The main questions will be how Fleck builds depth on his young defense, and if he can retain Davis, who is a highly touted pro prospect, but would face questions about the competition he has faced in conference play. Still, Western Michigan is poised to contend for the 2016 MAC Championship, something that was unthinkable two seasons ago when the Broncos finished 1-11.