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The Western-Central rivalry under P.J. Fleck

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Four years ago, Kelly-Shorts stadium hosted the last WMU win for Bill Cubit before his firing two weeks later. Now, with the rivalry heating up, we revisit that game, and the rivalry since Cubit’s successor has taken the reigns.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

The year is 2012.

The Western Michigan Broncos are 3-6 and coming to life after a mid-season injury to starting quarterback Alex Carder derailed what was Bronco fans were hoping to be a MAC Championship contending season. The Central Michigan Chippewas were 3-5 with a quality win at Iowa, but struggling to keep up with expectations left by Butch Jones and Brian Kelly in years past.

It’s a beautiful, if not chilly, November day. The two teams are meeting at Kelly-Shorts Stadium for their annual rivalry. It’s also the first leg of the Michigan MAC Trophy, which sits in rival Eastern Michigan’s hands after the Eagles swept the two teams the year before. Bowl eligibility hangs in the balance for both Bill Cubit’s Broncos and Dan Enos’ Chips.

Both teams struggle to find offense early on, but with a 58-yard strike to CMU’s rising star Titus Davis, the Chippewas take a 23-14 lead into the fourth quarter. However, they’re set to punt to the Broncos in what would be an epic final stanza.


P.J. Fleck was hired on December 17th, 2012.

The coach he replaced went 51-47 over his eight-year career, including a 36-27 mark in MAC play. Big shoes to fill, but he has a vision: bring a MAC Championship to Kalamazoo.

His first year is rough. After playing a close game to eventual Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State in his opener, he loses at home to Nicholls State, an FCS team.

It’s hard for WMU fans to trust Fleck. Can he truly deliver on his promises? Can he live up to his eccentric personality? Or did the Western Michigan athletic department just hire him as a publicity stunt?

Eventually, the Broncos hold on against UMass to earn their first win of the year. The win ensures the first winless season in Bronco history is postponed at least another year, and the Michigan MAC Trophy is up for grabs, traveling to Ypsilanti after a bye week.

A tough overtime loss that day ends any hopes for that trophy, and the attention turns towards Central Michigan on Senior Day. One last chance for the seniors - who signed their letters of intent with the hopes of winning under Bill Cubit - to get a win on their home turf.


Buried Deep

On the third play following the punt, backup quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen hits Justin Collins for a 28-yard score. The quick drive gets the Broncos within a score, and now it’s time for the defense to step up. A long kick return gets the Chippewas near mid-field, but a three-and-out forces a CMU punt. A break for the Chips though, as the ball is downed at the 2-yard line.

Van Tubbergen has already been picked off this game while throwing from his own end zone. The interception set-up a quick score that made it 14-12, with the ensuing two-point conversion failing. Still, it swung the game in CMU’s favor, and they smell blood once more as the team tries try to get its insurance back.

But something else happens. Dareyon Chance gains some yards to get out of the shadows of the end zone, and Van Tubbergen goes to work. Over the course of eight plays, he leads the team down the field, culminating in a 22-yard strike to Collins again to give the Broncos the lead.

Now, it’s the Chippewas’ turn to respond.

Western Michigan v Northern Illinois Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

2013

The 2013 Chippewas aren’t bad, but they’re not great, either. They’re 3-5 coming into the rivalry game, but their losses have been to mostly good teams. They face the lay-up part of their schedule, and hope to become bowl-eligible.

Dan Enos is again facing the calls for his firing for underachieving. This was a program that had won MAC Championships under Kelly and Jones. Now? They were trying to get back to their winning ways against the Broncos, having dropped two straight following an impressive five-year run of dominance over their rival.

Fleck is ready for the season to end. The locker room is divided between Cubit leftovers that refuse to buy into “Row The Boat” and the other “Fleckisms”, and the players that are fighting for Fleck, and believe in the “Bronconese”. As he says goodbye to the seniors, he knows he’ll be saying goodbye to a few others in the off-season as they explore other opportunities. Still, he’s ready to get a full recruiting class in, with preliminary rankings putting the Broncos in historic air.

The game starts and the Chippewas jump out to a 14-0 lead on a pair of Zurlon Tipton touchdown runs 10 minutes in. However, they can never truly put the game away. They commit five turnovers. But the Bronco offense is still too anemic to function against any competition. Still, with the game 27-22 late, Terrell and his budding star wide-out Corey Davis have one last chance to grab a monumental victory over their rival. However, on 4th and long, Terrell overthrows his receiver, and the Broncos watch the Chippewas celebrate with the Victory Cannon on their home turf.

The season would end a week-and-a-half later, with the Broncos getting ran off the field by an undefeated NIU squad, led by Heisman hopeful quarterback Jordan Lynch. Still, the plan in the off-season is to regroup, rebuild, and truly start the Fleck era.


The Response

Central Michigan v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ryan Radcliff was the heir apparent to Dan LeFevour. He was supposed to be a better passer, and in many ways, he lived up to that. However, he didn’t win with the consistency that his predecessor did. Still, he has a chance to nab a win in his last Western-Central game.

He gets to work. He has Titus Davis on the outside and Zurlon Tipton behind him, and the three of them are a powerful offensive trio that the MAC has struggled to stop. By the time they’re done, Tipton will be fifth all-time in CMU rushing touchdowns, Titus will be the most prolific receiver in CMU history (even more so than Antonio Brown, and Radcliff will trail only LeFevour in nearly every major passing category).

On this day, though, he hits Davis on a pair of passes for first downs to move the ball down the field. The second of those passes is a 27-yard strike to get the ball to the WMU 3-yard line. A defensive holding penalty moves the ball to the 1, where Tipton punches it in for the go-ahead score with 5:24 to go.

The Broncos get the kickoff, and they go back to work.


The 2014 season that shouldn’t have happened, but did

The Broncos come out and play Purdue close. In that game, a freshman running back by the name of Jarvion Franklin comes out of nowhere to score three touchdowns and have a monster game. It’s unheard of, with the Bronco offense relying heavily on the pass during the Cubit era.

A win at Idaho and over an FCS foe gets the Broncos to 2-2 heading into conference play. They open with Toledo, and lead most of the game. However, they lose when the Rockets storm down the field and hit a game-tying field goal to send the game into overtime. There, both teams score, but with the Broncos playing offense second, junior kicker Andrew Haldeman misses the game-tying PAT to lose to the MAC West favorites.

Still, they reel off five straight wins after that. The team is improving with each game, and with Franklin in the backfield, Terrell and Corey Davis are able to operate more efficiently. Terrell even utilizes fellow Cubit recruit Daniel Braverman in the passing game, with the sophomore wide-out coming off an ACL injury in fall camp the year before.

Now, they face the Chippewas at Kelly-Shorts Stadium.


Enos, Rush, Davis at Media Day James H. Jimenez

The Chippewas look good under Enos. Titus Davis is playing on senior day, and a sophomore quarterback by the name of Cooper Rush is tearing it up as he has his team 7-4. While they can’t win the MAC Championship, they have a chance at a share of the MAC West Title. It’s an outside chance, having lost to Ball State following another surprise win over NIU, but it’s a chance.

On the first three drives, the Chippewas score twice while Franklin has a rare fumble in the lone WMU possession. Another quick 14-0 lead for the Chippewas, and it looks like last year’s game might be repeated.

But something happens. The Broncos respond. And with a vengeance.


The Comeback

Van Tubbergen takes the field with 5:24 to go. He has the ball at his own 33-yard line, and needs to go 50 yards to get a chance at a game-tying field goal. These are the drives where legends are made, and now it’s his turn to step up.

On his first three plays, he hits former walk-on Eric Monette for gains of 7, 9, and 31 yards. The latter gets the Broncos in the red zone with just over three minutes to play. Now, it’s up to coach Fleck to decide whether to try and bleed the clock and play for overtime, or go for the jugular now and force the Chippewas to drive the length of the field with little time left.

He goes for the latter, and on 2nd-and-14, “TVT” hits Monette for a 24-yard touchdown to give the Broncos a 35-31 lead with 2:51 to go. WMU fans and admins go crazy. Chippewa fans worry. But there’s still a drive left. There’s still time left.

The ensuing kickoff is caught by Courtney Williams at the 10-yard line. He takes it near the 40-yard line when he’s hit by Rontavious Atkins. The hit jars the ball loose, and star cornerback Lewis Toler falls on it.

Mayhem ensues, and the referees go to look at the play. Their determination of whether Williams was down or not will almost surely determine the outcome of the game.


The “burn” offense is born

With the Broncos down 14-0 late in the 1st quarter. Fleck elects to not go for the quick strike, but rather, to rest the defense. They’ve been on the field for over 10 minutes of game time, so he counters with Franklin. The freshman running back pounds the Chippewa defense for short gain after short gain, with a pass to Davis and a couple carries by Chance to give him rest.

A 2-yard touchdown run is well received by the defense, as they force a three-and-out on the ensuing Chippewa possession. In all, the Chippewas will only get three points on 63 total yards the rest of the half. The Broncos will score 14 more points to take a 22-17 lead at the half.

The second half would see a defensive battle. Both teams would get field goals, but with nothing happening, the game would come down to a pair of key plays, the first being on special teams.

Western Michigan v Northern Illinois Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The Dagger

After a lengthy review, the call stands. The crowd roars cheers and boos from the respective fans. Meanwhile, Cubit knows he must ice this game now. He calls a run. Timeout CMU. He calls another run. Timeout CMU. It’s 3rd-and-5. His team isn’t in field goal range. They’re at the 42. He still calls another run.

It’s a 42-yard touchdown. Chippewa fans sat in stunned silence, hearts broken. The Broncos sideline jumps up in elation.


Deja Vu

Amari Coleman tries to catch a punt in a 25-20 game. His team still has over six minutes to get the lead back from the Broncos, but he’s trying to catch it at the 2-yard line. He fails, and the Broncos pounce on it. Two plays later, Terrell hits Davis on a 7-yard score. It’s a 32-20 game, but plenty of time.

But where the Bronco defense had failed in the past, they were succeeding. They had held the Chippewas to 0 yards of run offense in the 2nd half, shutting down Thomas Rawls. And now, they were about to step up big time. On the first drive, they would bend and let CMU get all the way to the WMU 24-yard line. But they would pick off Rush at the 2 to deny the closing score. A quick three-and-out meant another Chippewa drive, but Donald Celiscar’s interception on 4th and 3 sealed the game.

32-20 final, and P.J. Fleck had his first Victory Cannon and Michigan MAC trophies.

Michigan MAC Trophy & Victory Cannon Trophy Brandon Fitzsimons

The ends of bygone eras

That 2012 game was the last Bronco win for Bill Cubit. He would replace Van Tubbergen in favor of a still not 100% Carder against Buffalo, and the move would hurt him dearly as the senior QB threw four interceptions in a rout. The final nail in his coffin came when he lost to a Stan Parrish-led Eastern Michigan team on Senior Day. The loss cost him a shot a the Broncos’ 2nd Michigan MAC Trophy, having been shut-out since winning the inaugural one in 2005. He was fired just hours after that game.

The 2014 game was the last Western-Central game for Dan Enos. He coached one more game for the Chippewas: the famous 2014 Bahamas Bowl, when his team came from down 35 to tie the game on a Hail Mary, only to lose on a failed two-point conversion. That off-season, he would leave the program to join Brett Bielema at Arkansas as an offensive coordinator. The move jolted the CMU program, as it came just days before the 2015 National Signing Day.

Illinois v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Rebirth(s)

Last year, the Broncos and Chippewas met at Waldo Stadium. The game was a great one, with John Bonamego coaching Central Michigan just weeks after defeating cancer. He was hired at his alma mater shortly after Enos left, and inherited a solid squad. He instilled a tough defensive mindset, and let Rush sling it, to keep the Chippewas from falling down (as they did in the early Enos days). There was no wholesale rebuild like Fleck, there was only a certain gritty determination.

Still, with the game on the line, Fleck went to his steady “burn” offense. His team got the ball, up 41-39 with 8:22 to go. They didn’t give the ball back. It’s been a staple of his since the 2014 season. Now? It’s more lethal than ever, as the Broncos are 4-0 to start the season for the first time since 1994. Fleck has built this team how he has needed it, and now they’re looking like the favorites for the MAC Championship, and dark horse contenders for a potential “Group of Five” bid.

The Chippewas are 3-1 to start the season for the first time since 2009, the last year of the Butch Jones era. Their senior quarterback is looking to break the records of the one that led that ‘09 squad, and their defense is one of the best in the conference. There’s little youth there, but with Coach Bono’s tutelage, the recruits Enos brought in have grown into a MAC West contender.

Two coaches, two different routes. One excellent rivalry set to be renewed on Saturday in Mt. Pleasant.

MAC Logo on Kelly/Shorts Turf James H. Jimenez