EVANSTON, Ill. — Offenses are granted four downs in college football, so Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck figured he might as well use them all.
The Broncos going 4 for 4 on fourth down was a key in their upset of Northwestern on Saturday.
“We didn’t come here to lay up. We came here to win a football game,” Fleck said. “I believe in this football team and I believe in our short-yardage system. It comes down to attitude, how and will, and I believe that’s what we do well.”
Zach Terrell threw for 218 yards and a touchdown and Jamauri Bogan had a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down in Western Michigan’s 22-21 victory.
Terrell was 26 of 36 as Western Michigan’s offense controlled the play throughout and held the ball for 39 minutes.
Justin Jackson had 124 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns, including a 46-yarder, for Northwestern.
Clayton Thorson completed 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards. His fumble at the goal line in the final minutes thwarted Northwestern’s comeback attempt.
“I saw a lot of space,” Thorson said. “Could have scored, but even if I didn’t, I should have gone down or something. Can’t fumble on the 1.”
The outcome essentially came down to two close plays at each goal line in the final minutes. Bogan’s touchdown with 5:38 remaining gave the Broncos the lead. The play was reviewed because there was a question whether his knee was down before he crossed over. The call stood.
“Our fullback, Leo (Ekwoge), went in there and destroyed things, our offensive line played really well and God was with me and he helped me tuck my leg just a little bit more,” Bogan said.
On the ensuing possession, Northwestern drove down the field before Thorson was hit by linebacker Robert Spillane and fumbled. Davontae Ginwright recovered for the Broncos for the touchback before stepping out of bounds. The play was reviewed because Ginwright threw the ball back on the field — it was recovered by Northwestern — but it was ruled he stepped out before getting rid of the ball.
“Not to discredit Western Michigan, but when you play as poorly as we did, those calls, the football gods, they go against you.” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You get what you earn, and that’s what we deserve.”
Fleck was pumped, but was careful not to make too much of the win.
“How big is it? It’s as big as the outside world makes it,” he said. “Inside our circle, it’s 1-0, and that’s it.”
Western Michigan freshman kicker Butch Hampton converted three of four field goals with a long of 47. He missed his first attempt, hitting the crossbar from 50 yards out.
“How ’bout your first kick as a true freshman from 50?” Fleck said. “I think you saw what he could do.”
As a 35-year-old coach, it’s not surprising that Fleck looks up to Fitzgerald, who took over the Wildcats when he was 31.
“He is what I want to become, and that’s a huge compliment to him because he does things the right way,” Fleck said. “He is one of my all-time mentors.”
Western Michigan: The Broncos were picked as favorites to win the Mid-American Conference this season and they showed why. Terrell ended last season as the seventh-most efficient quarterback in the country and picked up right where he left off. “Zach Terrell is the toughest football player I’ve ever coached,” Fleck said.
Northwestern: The Wildcats tied a school record with 10 wins last season, but the opener showed they have a ways to go before they can think of achieving that type of production this season. For now, Jackson will be the workhorse on offense until Thorson and the young receiving corps work out the kinks. Defensively, the Wildcats struggled to get consistent pressure on Terrell and were regularly outmuscled on short-yardage plays.
Western Michigan: The Broncos host North Carolina Central on Saturday night.
Northwestern: The Wildcats host Illinois State on Saturday in the second of four straight home games to start the season.