Fleck, W. Michigan look to 'row the boat' vs. Toledo
Since his arrival at Western Michigan in December 2012, coach P.J. Fleck urged everyone associated with his program to “Row the Boat” – and the philosophy has brought the No. 14 Broncos into uncharted waters.
Western Michigan hosts Toledo on Friday (5 p.m. ET, ESPNU) in what amounts to the Mid-American Conference West Division title game. The winner advances to the MAC championship Dec. 2 at Ford Field in Detroit.
The stakes are much higher for the Broncos (11-0, 7-0), though, who are also in the driver's seat to play in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2 and reap the rewards of the $6 million payday that comes with being the highest-ranked Group of Five conference team in the country. Western Michigan is one of two undefeated teams in the nation (No. 1 Alabama) and 11-0 for the first time in school history.
But the 35-year-old Fleck continues to keep his team focused on the next task at hand, which is to defeat Toledo (9-2, 6-1).
“I had 'Row the Boat' a long time ago, but I never brought it out,'' Fleck told Mlive.com in 2013. “It's very simple when you break it down. There are three parts to rowing the boat. There is the oar, which is the energy behind rowing the boat. There is boat, which is the actual sacrifice, either our team or the administration or the boosters or the audience or whoever is willing to sacrifice for this program. There is also the compass. Every single person that comes in contact with our football program, fans or not, they are all going for one common goal and that is success.
“When you literally talk about rowing the boat, you're facing the opposite direction the bow of the boat is actually going. You're not able to see the future. We've set sail and we've set our direction from point A to point B, whether it's right now to win a MAC Championship, or be the first person in your family to get a college education or to beat cancer.
“We're making it global and community-based. Everyone can relate to this. The boat is set in a direction and we're rowing. We can't see the future but we can see our past. Our past is the program. It's the people. That's what we're looking at and we're learning as we go. We don't know if there's a waterfall ahead of us, rocks, smooth seas or sunsets. We have no idea. We just have to keep rowing.”
The Broncos' magical run continued with a 38-0 victory over Buffalo on Saturday, extending a school-record 13-game winning streak that began with a 35-30 victory over Toledo to end the 2015 regular season.
Since Western Michigan's previous game was 11 days earlier (a 37-21 victory at Kent State on Nov. 8) and with a short week further abbreviated by Thanksgiving, Fleck and his coaching staff had the luxury of using a couple days to start preparing for the Rockets.
“When you start (preparations) and are ahead of time, you only do that as a coaching staff,” Fleck told Mlive.com. “That really never gets to our players. We've never brought up anything about Toledo in weeks past.''
The Broncos boast the MAC's top scoring offense (43.8 points per game) and defense (17.7) with the Rockets second in both categories at 39.2 and 22.5. The teams own the top two total offenses in the conference with Toledo also possessing the top passing offense (338.2 yards) and Western Michigan averaging a MAC-best 247.1 yards on the ground.
Western Michigan's plus-15 turnover margin is tied for the best nationally with No. 6 Washington and Old Dominion, and it all starts with quarterback Zach Terrell. The senior completes 71.3 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and one interception.
Terrell passed for a career-high 445 yards and four touchdowns against Buffalo, drawing incredibly high praise from Fleck: “Zach Terrell is the finest football player and finest man I've ever met in my entire life.''
Broncos wide receiver Corey Davis is on the verge of becoming the career FBS receiving yards leader after recording 173 on 13 catches with two touchdowns Saturday. Davis, who already has the most receptions (310) and receiving TDs (49) in MAC history, is 19 yards shy of breaking the FBS record of 5,005 yards set by Nevada's Trevor Insley in 1999.
Davis's 16 touchdowns share the national lead with Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson.
Western Michigan also features junior running back Jarvion Franklin, who boasts a MAC-best 1,228 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Rockets, who reached nine victories for the third consecutive season with a 37-19 win over Ball State on Nov. 16, have a few weapons of their own.
Quarterback Logan Woodside leads the country with 40 touchdowns against only seven interceptions while completing 70.1 percent of his passes. His 3,653 yards rank fourth nationally.
Woodside's targets include wide receivers Cody Thompson (20.1 yards per team-best 56 catches, 10 touchdowns) and Jon'Vea Johnson (19.8, 38, 10). Tight end Michael Roberts has a team-best 12 TDs.
Toledo is far from one-dimensional as running back Kareem Hunt's 1,155 yards and seven scores attest.
Woodside must be on the lookout for Broncos defensive end Keion Adams (5.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries) while Terrell hopes to avoid defensive tackle Treyvon Hester (five sacks, seven hurries) and defensive end John Stepec (4.5, 13).