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Western Michigan Broncos football's back-to-back Michigan MAC Championships has been a long process

From the lows to the highs, this Western Michigan team has faced it all en route to back-to-back Michigan MAC Championships

On a cold, misty Thursday night, the Western Michigan Broncos stood against rivals Eastern Michigan, with a chance to repeat as Michigan MAC Champions, something they hadn't done in the trophy's short history.  To get to that point, the group of players leading the team had to live through quite the journey.

2011

In the midst of a historic season by wide-receiver Jordan White, the Broncos jump out to a 4-2 start with losses to a then-ranked Illinois team and a Sugar Bowl bound Michigan team.  Included in those wins are a shelling of rival Central Michigan at home, their first win over the Chippewas since 2005 - the inaugural year of the Michigan MAC Trophy.  After a then historically poor performance against NIU's run game in a loss, Bill Cubit's team heads to Ypsilanti with a chance to win their first Michigan MAC Trophy since '05.

There's something weird about Rynearson Stadium that seems to bring out the worst in Western Michigan.  Maybe it's the open space due to the track and the lack of end zone seating.  Maybe it's the poor attendance from living in Ann Arbor's shadow.  Either way, the Broncos have laid an egg in the internet age in Ypsilanti.

In 2011, Alex Carder-to-Jordan White is arguably the best QB-to-WR combination in the nation, with White leading the nation in most statistical categories despite having an entire quarter wiped out due to rain in the Michigan game.  On the other sideline, Ron English appears to be finally turning a corner and raising EMU from the cellar of the MAC West.  His team has a winning record and is coming off a win at Central Michigan for their first rivalry win in three years.  With two wins over FCS teams, English has to get his team to 7-5 to make a bowl game.

The Bronco defense comes out strong, but gives up a 50-yard pass play to go down 7-0 at the half.  Tevin Drake breaks open the 2nd half with a 46-yard score of his own to tie the game, but it's clear that Carder-to-White can only do so much on this day.  A John Potter field goal gives WMU a slim 10-7 lead, but Javonti Green gets a 50-yard touchdown run to put EMU ahead.

Carder is able to lead the team down the field to the brink of the go-ahead score with under 2 minutes to go.  However, the lack of a consistent run game is the crux of Bill Cubit teams.  On four straight plays, the Broncos are unable to score from 2 or fewer yards out, and Eastern Michigan is able to run out the clock to win their third Michigan MAC Trophy.

The Broncos recover from the loss to beat strong Ball State and Miami teams in two of their next three games.  However, a loss to Toledo all but seals their fate as 3rd place in the MAC West, and they settle for the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.  They lose in White's final game in a WMU uniform, but the future looks solid for the next season.

2012

A weak non-conference schedule is met with a weak performance by Cubit's squad to start the year, as Carder struggles to find a consistent target with a whole new wide-receiver core.  However, he is able to lead his team to a win over a Power 5 opponent in UConn, but gets hurt in garbage time.  Tyler Van Tubbergen takes over, but loses 4 of his first 5 games.  With a 3-6 record, and bowl eligibility quickly slipping away, the Broncos head to Mt. Pleasant, where they haven't won in 10 years.

Brian Kelly and Butch Jones came and went.  In their time at CMU, they turned the Chippewas into MAC powers, and completely dominated the Broncos.  Their leftovers given to Dan Enos managed to squeak out a miracle win at home in 2010 to retain the Victory Cannon, and sweep the Michigan MAC Trophy for a 2nd year, but now Enos must prove that his players can get the job done.

The game goes back and forth, but the Chippewas hold a 23-14 lead heading to the fourth quarter.  Then, "TVT Time" is born.  In one of the greatest performances in Bronco history, Van Tubbergen throws three touchdowns to give the Broncos a 35-31 lead, including a 98-yard drive on the go-ahead score.  A fumble on the ensuing kickoff leads right away to a touchdown run to put away the game.

Pandemonium follows.  The Broncos, coming off their first win in their main rival's house are resurgent, but it all appears to be short lived.  Carder returns from injury, but looks rusty in the lead-up to the next game against Buffalo.  It's confirmed when he throws 4 interceptions to all but end the season.  However, one game remains:  a match-up for the Michigan MAC Trophy with a 1-9 Eastern Michigan squad on Senior Day.

Alex Carder is one of the better quarterbacks to come to Western Michigan.  He's third in most career statistical categories, with only two-and-a-half seasons of play as a starter.  But he will forever be remembered more for how his career ended, as it was almost a direct mirror of his play:  start strong, finish weak.

After numerous failed fourth quarter drives, Carder again has a chance to give the Broncos a chance to win late.  But stalled drive after stalled drive appear to be killing not only his career, but Cubit's as well.  Late in the fourth, Carder gets the Broncos close to the red zone, but on 4th and short, Cubit elects to go for a field goal rather than a touchdown.  The kick is good, but Eastern runs out the clock to retain the Michigan MAC Trophy via a three-way tie.

Cubit is fired minutes after his post-game press conference, and a group of freshmen that were part of both close calls are left wondering what the future holds.  Players like Rontavious Atkins, Ronald Zamort, and Daniel Braverman are now on a team without the coach that brought them to Kalamazoo, one that had a winning record, and left with a difficult choice "stay or go".

2013

PJ Fleck is hired in the off-season, and the hype train that he creates with his high energy and odd mantras creates a spectacle in Kalamazoo.  Some embrace it, others make fun of it, but most players buy into it.  Some players leave the program, others are injured in August practices (including then reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Jaime Wilson).  Van Tubbergen tanks to start the season, and the Bronco offense sputters the entire way as the lose game after game, including a loss to lowly FCS program Nicholls State.  They pick up a win against UMass by virtue of a failed 2-point conversion to spare themselves of the program's first winless season, and face weak Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan teams on back-to-back weeks before an almost guaranteed loss to an undefeated NIU team looking for back-to-back BCS bowls.

The Michigan MAC Trophy is a gauntlet.  A two-game gauntlet, but one nonetheless.  It happens when you have to play two rivalry games, because anything can happen.  The 2013 versions of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan football are bad.  They always will be.  Eastern comes into Kalamazoo fresh off the heels of firing English for a expletive ridden tirade that goes public.  Fleck is mocked, and fans have little to no faith in him.  Yet, with a win against the other, each team can somehow spare the season from "total loss".

Each team is riding a freshman QB.  For the Broncos, Zach Terrell has taken over for Van Tubbergen, who fades into obscurity despite his eye popping numbers in a 2011 game against Akron and the 2012 CMU game.  For the Eagles, four-star recruit Brogan Roback is given the reigns to the Eagle offense.

Both teams trade opening scores, but Terrell is able to create much more offense for the Broncos on the day.  He's not able to finish with a touchdown on multiple drives, though, and that keeps the Eagles in the game.  Time and time again, the lack of a true rushing threat results in six field goals for Andrew Haldeman on the day, but WMU is able to jump out to a 29-21 lead with just under 7 minutes to go.

That's when the legend of Roback was born.  On this day, he's able to burn six minutes of time to get a game saving touchdown, hitting Dustin Creel for a 10-yard score with 51 seconds left.  He finds magic again, with a crucial two-point conversion to tie the game.  After EMU holds the Broncos to another field goal in overtime, Roback relies on his run game to set up a short 4-yard touchdown rush to win the game in overtime.

Dejected, the Broncos have to turn around to face Central Michigan, who again face a 3-6 hole with three games left to make bowl eligibility.  Senior day is bittersweet, as Van Tubbergen and many other former Cubit recruits say goodbye to Waldo Stadium against the same opponent they shelled two years prior to break a long losing streak.

The team comes out flat, going into a 14-0 hole early.  They battle back to take a 16-14 lead midway through the 3rd quarter, and that moment may have been where the team truly began to come together, even if just for a moment.

The next two drives are a long, six minute touchdown march by the Chippewas, followed by a pick-six by Terrell to flip the game to 27-16.  The Broncos add a touchdown early in the fourth, but can never get the go ahead score on the final drive, with Terrell missing Corey Davis - the eventual Freshman of the Year - a couple times high.  A 27-22 loss ends the season, with a rival winning the Michigan MAC Trophy on Waldo turf yet again.  It's the first time since 2007 that the Broncos are unable to beat either of their rivals.

2014

In the off-season, Fleck brings in a historic haul of recruits, with the best class the MAC has seen since ratings came out.  Terrell settles into the offense and Braverman comes back from injury to help spark the offense.  A young freshman named Jarvion Franklin is named to the running-back corps, and Mike Hart is hired away from Eastern Michigan.  The result is stunning.  The Broncos come out to a 2-1 start, then go on a tear after narrowly losing to Toledo due to a missed PAT.  Four straight wins - including a road victory over eventual MAC East Champion Bowling Green - ignite a fire in the fan base.  It's a bye week before getting rivals Eastern and Central on back-to-back Saturdays again, with the Michigan MAC Trophy within grasp yet again.

It's funny how true "history repeats itself" is.  The 2005 Western Michigan team that won the inaugural Michigan MAC Trophy went 1-10 the year before with close losses to their rivals.  They were led by a future All-Pro wide-out in Greg Jennings, and they were under a new coach in Bill Cubit.  PJ Fleck may have been given less to work with in his first year, but now he has Corey Davis and a true team in his hands.

Eastern Michigan is up first.  They hire Chris Creighton in the off-season, who turns Rynearson Stadium into "The Factory".  Like Fleck, he is mocked for his "gimmicky" ways, but he has an upset win over Buffalo under his belt already.  Still, his Eagle team is 2-7, and only narrowly survived a season opener against Morgan State of the FCS.

The game is never close.

Franklin gets hurt early, but Terrell puts on an efficiency clinic.  ESPN rates his QBR as one of the best single game performances ever with the likes of Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota as he uses just 19 pass attempts to go for 357 yards and four scores.  It's 48-0 at the half.

Eyes then turn to a return to Mt. Pleasant, where Davis' older brother Titus is playing his final game at Kelly-Shorts Stadium.  Like Corey, Titus is a NFL prospect with great size and has been a dominant presence in the MAC during his time at CMU.  In the 2012 game, he put up an incredible 200+ receiving yard performance despite taking the loss.  He's not ready to lose.

Once again, the Chippewas start out stronger than the Broncos.  They jump to an early 14-0 lead after a score on the first drive and a Franklin fumble gives them the ball in great field position for a second score.  However, a big second quarter gives the Broncos a 22-17 lead by the half, with Corey Davis getting a 33-yard touchdown with just 41 seconds left to put WMU ahead.

The game turns into a defensive battle in the 2nd half, with the teams trading a field goal over the next 20 minutes.  After another failed drive, the Broncos are forced to punt, but Amari Coleman muffs it, another special teams blunder late in the game similar to the 2012 game.  Terrell hits Davis for an insurance score, and a pair of interceptions from a senior-laden secondary keep the Chippewas from making any sort of comeback.

After 9 long seasons, the Michigan MAC Trophy is finally back in Kalamazoo for more than a day.

Michigan MAC Trophy & Victory Cannon Trophy Brandon Fitzsimons
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The Broncos would go on to lose their next game to eventual MAC Champions Northern Illinois after losing a comfortable first half lead.  They would make their 6th ever bowl game, but would lose that as well.  Fleck would be named MAC Coach of the Year while Jarvion Franklin became the first player to win both the MAC Freshman of the Year and MAC (Offensive) Player of the Year awards.

2015

Imagine for a second that you're a senior football player for the Broncos.  Either (a) you have been with the program via a redshirt for this entire journey, or (b) you were recruited during the 2011 bowl season and are playing out your career.  You've seen the coach that brought you to Kalamazoo gone for the worst season of his career, and PJ Fleck take over.  You've seen the single-worst season via winning percentage that the program has ever endured.  Yet, now you're still a MAC West contender and looking for the first back-to-back sweep of your rivals, something only "That Team Up North" has done in the last 10 years.

The non-conference schedule is brutal.  You open at home against the no. 5 team in the country, one that many think could win the National Championship.  You have to go down to BFE Georgia to face a Georgia Southern squad that ran roughshod on the Sun Belt in their first year of FBS play.  And you have to go to the 'Shoe to face the defending National Champions in their own house in front of 100,000 or so of their friends.  A bad game in Georgia aside, you look respectable going 1-3 with a win over a FCS school.

Then, it's Central week.

Two years ago, the Chippewas came into Waldo Stadium and ended a year you never thought would happen.  Now, it's time to hold serve back at your house.  The game starts off well for the Broncos, as they force a pair of turnovers and jump out to a 10-0 lead.  Trading blows throughout the half, Terrell hits Davis for a touchdown with seconds left before halftime to make it 27-16 Broncos.  Another touchdown to open the half makes it 34-16, and the rout is on.

Or is it?  The Chippewas make a furious comeback, getting to within a two-point conversion away from a tie early in the 4th quarter.  The attempt fails, and Terrell hits Braverman on a crossing route for a quick response score.  Another CMU touchdown makes it 41-39 with 8 minutes to go.

But the most miraculous thing happens next.  Fleck, now armed with a solid run game, uses a mix of passes and runs to march down the field and kill most of the remaining clock.  But he's stuck on 4th and 4 around the Chippewa 10-yard line with just under 2 minutes to go.  Conventional wisdom says take the points and make CMU go the length of the field in a short span for the win.  But Fleck doesn't follow the wisdom.  He calls a "go get it" play to Davis, who leaps over a Chippewa safety for the first down.  Game over, and the Victory Cannon is once again in Bronco hands on home field.

Western Michigan rolls Ohio and Miami in their next two games to set-up another match-up with Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti.  They are 1-3 in their last four trips the Rynearson Stadium, and are playing their first weeknight game since a Tuesday night loss to NIU to end their 2013 season.

To say the Broncos wanted this one bad is an understatement.  As bad as the Eagles have been, they still owned the Broncos.  Back-to-back wins at home, and the Cubit firing at Waldo was a lot to handle.  Revenge at home is sweet.  Revenge on the road is sweeter.

But the Eagles come out on fire.  They march down the field to score, and despite two early turnovers, hold a 7-6 lead after holding back-to-back drives by the Broncos to just field goals.  Western Michigan is able to take over the game a bit, but another EMU touchdown to close the half makes it just a 23-14 game.  Eastern has 204 yards on the ground alone in the half, after the usually stingy Bronco defense caves.

But worry is short lived.  To come out of halftime, the Broncos score three touchdowns while forcing two turnovers to take a commanding 44-14 lead after just six minutes of second half play.  And the celebration all but begins.  A couple traded scores to close the game, and PJ Fleck does what no coach had done before:  back-to-back Michigan MAC Trophy sweeps.  No retention, no coaches passing the torch.  His crew, his staff, his seniors overcame a difficult journey to be on top.

"We really are superstars by committee," Fleck said after the game.  His team has a ton of talent, but no one player seems to stand above the rest.  Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman are both great wide out, but neither seems to dominate over the other.  Jarvion Franklin splits time with Jamauri Bogan, who had four touchdowns against the Eagles.  "I love that.  If you just have one (or two) guys, you know what happens down the stretch (with injuries).  With this team, it's 'next man up'."

For the seniors, it was especially sweet.  Players like Cleveland Smith and Zamort were the first ones to the trophies after the game, leading the team in the celebration.

Ronald Zamort Victory Cannon

Cleveland Smith Michigan MAC Trophy kiss

After this year, the seniors will graduate.  The drive from the eldest group of players may leave, and the need to validate the ups and downs from having an All-American led bowl team to utter heartbreak will fade.  But for at least one more year, the Michigan trophies are back in Bronco hands, with Fleck's crew looking to further validate themselves as the leaders of the MAC.

Michigan MAC and Victory Cannon Trophies Brandon Fitzsimons