MAC title game the next hurdle for unbeaten Western Michigan
Ohio quarterback Quinton Maxwell throws during an NCAA college football walk-through in Detroit, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Ohio will play Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference Championship at Ford Field on Friday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
DETROIT (AP) Amid all his talk about taking things one game at a time and staying focused on the process, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck acknowledged reality.
Yes, his players realize how significant this opportunity is.
''We're not going to sit there and trick them – they know how big this is,'' Fleck said. ''They're very mature. They've been through a lot. They understand exactly where they are, and how hard it is to get to this point.''
The 13th-ranked Broncos take on Ohio on Friday night in the Mid-American Conference title game, with a chance to win WMU's first league championship since 1988. There's more at stake than just that, of course. At No. 17 in the playoff rankings, the Broncos are trying to hold off No. 19 Navy for the Group of Five spot in a New Year's Six bowl.
For Ohio, this game is about more than just being a spoiler. The Bobcats (8-4) have an even longer title drought than WMU (12-0). Ohio hasn't won the MAC since 1968.
''I feel like there are some sleepers out there that may not think that we belong here on this stage playing this game,'' Ohio defensive end Tarell Basham said. ''We're going to play hard, physical, we're going to be enthusiastic about it, and we're going to show all those people that this is exactly where Ohio needs to be.''
The MAC title game had the same matchup for the past three years – Northern Illinois against Bowling Green. The presence of two new teams – one of which is undefeated and playing in its home state – has added some significant buzz. WMU athletic director Kathy Beauregard said as of Thursday morning, ticket sales had exceeded 46,000, which would almost triple the attendance at Ford Field for last season's championship game.
''It's fun to be a part of this, and fun to have this opportunity, and also to see the pride in the community,'' WMU quarterback Zach Terrell said.
Here are a few things to watch when WMU and Ohio play for that elusive conference title:
Fleck hasn't gotten too involved in the debate over where WMU should be in the rankings. He said Thursday that trying to lobby publicly probably would be pointless.
''Our body of work speaks for itself,'' Fleck said. ''I think everybody understands how hard it is to go undefeated, even to get to this point, especially with the coaches that are on the (playoff) committee, former coaches. But I'm not going to say anything that's going to make them think differently.''
From the moment they beat Northwestern 22-21 in the season opener, the Broncos had a chance for a special season – and plenty of people realized it even then. The players have had to avoid getting too far ahead of themselves.
''The question after Northwestern was, `So you guys think you can go undefeated?' I mean, we are 1-0,'' Fleck said. ''And these guys have had to handle all those questions the entire year.''
LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
Ohio has 41 sacks on the season, and Basham has 11. He was named MAC defensive player of the year, while WMU receiver Corey Davis earned offensive player of the year honors.
WMU has allowed only 12 sacks this season, so the Bobcats' upset hopes could hinge on their ability to rush the passer. Ohio also has the top-ranked run defense in the MAC.
''We're not concerned about where we're at in terms of an underdog and how most people are looking at it and what's in store for us,'' Ohio coach Frank Solich said. ''We're excited about the opportunity, we'll play our best football, and we'll see what happens.''
Davis is the career FBS leader with 5,068 yards receiving. He broke the mark held by Trevor Insley of Nevada during last week's victory over Toledo.
The Broncos are plus-18 in turnover margin, thanks to the fact that they've given the ball away only five times. Terrell has thrown one interception all season (with 30 touchdown passes) and although WMU has 17 fumbles, it has lost only four of them.
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