Broncos secure MAC title with 29-23 win over Ohio
DETROIT (AP) -- With a conference championship finally in tow and his team's unbeaten record still intact, P.J. Fleck stopped holding back.
Before he was even asked about it, the Western Michigan coach made it clear where he thought his team should be headed next.
"We deserve to be in the gosh darn Cotton Bowl," he said. "Period. Write it down."
The 13th-ranked Broncos might indeed end up there, but only after holding on for a dramatic 29-23 victory over Ohio on Friday night in the Mid-American Conference title game. WMU wrapped up its first MAC championship since 1988 when Robert Spillane intercepted a pass with 51 seconds remaining.
The Broncos (13-0, No. 17 CFP) led 23-7 at halftime, but Ohio rallied and had the ball in WMU territory in the final minute when Spillane intercepted Greg Windham's pass over the middle. Spillane immediately took a knee at his own 30, then was mobbed by teammates as a Ford Field crowd full of Broncos fans roared.
Ohio (8-5) never led and didn't do much on offense until the final quarter, but the Bobcats still came achingly close to their first MAC championship since 1968.
Instead, WMU became the first undefeated team to win the MAC title game since Marshall in 1999. The question is whether the Broncos have done enough to make it to the Cotton Bowl. WMU is trying to earn the Group of Five bid to a New Year's Six bowl.
When asked previously about the playoff committee and its perception of his team, Fleck had been diplomatic, refusing to do too much lobbying. That changed after Friday's win, especially when he was asked about whether he'd be paying attention to Navy this weekend.
The Midshipmen, two spots behind WMU in the most recent playoff rankings, are another contender for the Cotton Bowl, and they play Temple for the American Athletic Conference title Saturday.
"I don't think there's anybody to pay attention to," Fleck said, becoming animated. "Who are we paying attention to? Why are we paying attention to anyone? We are 13-0. We're the best Group of Five team in the country. We didn't lose a game. Whoever they put on our schedule, we beat. There's two undefeated teams in the country -- us and Alabama. There is no argument. My TV will be off. We will be recruiting (Saturday). I'm not going to watch anybody, period.
"I'm going to wear cotton shirts, I'm going to have cotton slippers, I'm going to have cotton earmuffs, I'm going to have a cotton jacket. I'm going to wear everything cotton, from here on out."
Ohio: The Bobcats can hold their heads high after giving WMU by far its toughest game against a MAC opponent all season. Ohio's defense held firm early, when a couple of fumbles by the Bobcats gave WMU a chance to break it open.
"They felt they had the talent to be in this game, and so did I," Ohio coach Frank Solich said. "They were pretty driven to get some things done."
WMU: The Broncos may end up sweating out the bowl announcements Sunday, but WMU can celebrate a truly special season no matter what happens. The Broncos nearly let it slip away in the second half, but their first conference title in nearly three decades was an accomplishment to savor.
The crowd of 45,615 -- easily a record for a MAC title game -- was full of WMU fans chanting the team's "row the boat" mantra .
"We just kept our oars in the water," quarterback Zach Terrell said. "That's what this team's all about, and people might think it's a cliche and that it's not real, but that's just how we operate."
Western Michigan's Corey Davis, the career FBS leader in yards receiving, had eight catches for 144 yards. That included a 70-yard touchdown in the second quarter in which he caught the ball near midfield with safety Javon Hagan right behind him, opened up some distance between himself and Hagan and then outran a couple more defenders down the sideline.
Terrell, who had thrown one interception all season, was picked off twice in the second half, and Ohio held WMU without a touchdown after halftime.
"Obviously, our defense has been very strong throughout the course of basically the season and so they have that potential and they knew they had to step up, get that done," Solich said. "I was a little worried because Western Michigan in the second half just seems to wear people down and then the score just gets away from a team that's playing them."
That didn't happen Friday. Ohio repeatedly forced the Broncos to settle for field goals, but Butch Hampton made five of them for WMU. The last one was a 34-yarder that gave the Broncos a 29-23 lead with 1:24 remaining.
WMU: The Broncos moved up one spot in the AP poll after last week's win over Toledo, and they might have a chance to inch up further after winning the MAC. No. 9 Colorado lost Friday night, and No. 11 Oklahoma State plays Saturday.
Ohio: The Bobcats' MAC title drought continues, but Ohio is bowl eligible for the eighth straight season.
WMU: If Navy (9-2) loses Saturday, the Broncos figure to be a cinch for the Cotton Bowl. If Navy wins, it could end up being a close call between the Midshipmen and WMU.