DETROIT- The Western Michigan Broncos built a 23-7 halftime lead and then held on for a 26-23 victory over Ohio’s Bobcats in the 2016 Marathon Mid-American Conference Championship Game Friday night before a record crowd of 45,615 at Ford Field.
It was a game that was not decided until Ohio’s final drive in the final minute. Western Michigan junior LB Robert Spillane came up with the biggest play of the game -- and possibly the Bronco’s season -- by grabbing an interception with 45 seconds remaining in regulation. Ohio was driving toward a possible tying or winning score when Spillane stepped in front of an OU pass at the 30-yard line.
Western Michigan’s victory completed a perfect 13-0 season -- the first in school history. It also gave WMU its first conference title since 1988.
“It's historic” WMU head coach . . .
Freshman PK Butch Hampton set a MAC Championship Game record with five field goals, while senior QB Zach Terrell completed 19-of-31 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow senior, WR Corey Davis, caught eight passes for 144 yards and a score.
Ohio (8-5) was paced by fifth-year senior quarterback Greg Windham who came into the game in the second quarter and completed 14-pf-30 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
Early on, it looked like the Broncos would have an easy time moving the ball on the Ohio defense, But WMU had to settle for three field goals. Two came in the first quarter (42 and 27 yards). The third fame from just 21 yards away.
With his offense struggling, Bobcats head coach Frank Solich put the veteran Windham in for starter Quinton Maxwell, a redshirt freshman. Windham’s first pass was a over the middle to Papi White, who took the ball in stride for a 67-yard gain to the WMU six.
When asked of the change Solich said, “ We weren't getting a lot done with Quinton at the helm. He overthrew a couple passes and just didn't seem like he was operating at the level that we needed him to operate at, and so (we) decided to go with Greg.”
“Obviously, it ended up being a good decision in terms of Greg responding really very well,” said Solich, adding that Windham was coming off an injury, but appeared close to 100 percent healthy for title game.”
“Just going to the game, I was already hyped up and ready to go. So, at any point in the game, I knew I was going to come in and make something happen, and it happened,” Windham said. “That really got us rolling and offense started clicking from that point out.”
One play after the Ohio touchdown, WMU countered with an even quicker sore of its own. On the first play of the Bronco’s ensuring drive, Terrell hit Davis over the middle. He then moved down the left sideline for the score to make it 16-7.
The Broncos opened their biggest lead just before intermission
After taking over at their own 46-yard line, the Broncos put together a five-play, 54-yard drive that ended with Terrell rolling to the right and hitting senior WR Carrington Thompson to make the score 23-7 at halftime.
Over the first 30 minutes, WMU completely dominated the game offensively as it gained 270 yards to Ohio’s 107. Were it not for the Bobcats defense holding Western to field goals on three early possessions, WMU would have enjoyed an even larger lead.
Junior DB Brad Ellis picked off a Terrell pass and returned it to the Broncos’ five. It was the first of two Ohio interceptions after halftime. Terrell had only thrown one pick during the entire 2016 regular season.
Ohio capitalized on the miscue when Windham and Reid hooked up for their second touchdown of the game, this time on a slant pattern. Reid finished the game with just three catches for 22 yards. However, two of them were scores.
In regards to Windham’s play, Solich said “I thought it was a great performance. As he mentions, he's had a tough year. When you play great and then don't play maybe quite as well and then get injured, or play great again, then get injured, that's a lot to go through. So, I think he handled it all tremendously well, kept a great attitude throughout it and was doing everything he could to help this football team.”
The joy of the touchdown was somewhat tempered when freshman PK Louie Zervos missed the extra point.
Ohio inched closer on its next possession. Aided by a pass interference penalty, the ‘Cats reached Western’s 31. From there, Windham found White down the left sideline for his third touchdown of the game narrowing the Broncos lead to 26-20.
As the game entered the fourth quarter, it was just the third time during MAC play that WMU had been challenged (Eastern Michigan at home and at Kent State).
The Bobcats gained more momentum when their defense came up with another interception of Terrell. This one was by sophomore DB Kylan Nelson at the ‘Cats 32. Windham moved the ball to the Broncos 20 before the WMU’s defense stiffened. Zervos came on and hit a 32-yard field goal to make the score 26-23.
Following the score, Western Michigan took the ball on their own 25 and went 54 yards in 11 time-consuming plays, reaching the Ohio 16 before the drive stalled. Hampton kicked his fifth three-pointer, this time from 34 yards to increase the margin to six.
When asked about that final pass Windham said “I didn't see the back. … I read the safety and I thought I was going to have my receiver coming across the middle. And good play by that guy; he ran my eyes out. I did a bad job with my eyes. I locked in right away on him because I thought it was there.”
When asked about his win-clinching interception, Spillane said “There's no better feeling than letting our seniors go out like this. … They were the true foundation, so just to make a play like that to give our seniors a chance to go out like this … there's no better feeling in the world.”
Spillane led the defensive 11 with seven tackles (five solo) while the Cats were led by senior Toran Davis and Blair Brown each with 11 total tackles.
The six-point margin was the closest MAC title game since 2012, when Northern Illinois and Kent State went overtime before the Huskies pulled out the win. They went on to the Orange Bowl that year to face Florida State.
To reach a New Year’s bowl game, Western Michigan would have to be selected as the representive of the Group of Five conferences that are not automatic FBS qualifiers. The top non-automatic qualifier will play in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, most likely against the loser of the Big Ten Championship Game between Penn State and Wisconsin. All the bowl bids will be announced on Sunday afternoon.
When asked about that New Year’s bowl possibility, Terrell said “Honestly, we've done all we can do. I'm just so proud of this team. Going 13-0 is a tremendous feat. Whether or not we are in the Cotton Bowl or we aren't, we can't control that. All we can control is winning the games that are on our schedule and we've done that.
“I couldn't be prouder to be on this team, to represent this university and to see where we've come from. … Coach Fleck said three years ago when he first got here those at this table will be champions, and now we're champions.”