DETROIT - Make it four wins for the Mid-American Conference this season over the Big Ten as Western Michigan defeated Illinois 23-17 Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.
Western Michigan Celebrates / Photo: Brett Selleck
Led by wide receiver Jamarko Simmons' 174 yards receiving and a defense that set up both of the Broncos' touchdowns, Western Michigan improved to 8-2 on the season while the win also marked a MAC milestone of sorts.
The win was the fourth by a MAC squad this season over the Big Ten, topping the record three wins the conference posted over the Big Ten in 2003. Earlier this season both Ball State and Central Michigan downed Indiana while Toledo upset Michigan in the MAC's previous wins over the Big Ten.
"A lot of these kids (in the MAC) don't have offers from the Big Ten and I think they get a little bit of a chip on their shoulder," said Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit when discussing the impact of the win for the conference. "I know our kids get up for these games pretty good. This is a good league, this MAC is a real good league."
The Broncos let the Illini (5-5) know on their first possession that they were in for a battle.
Taking the opening kick from their own 31-yard line to the Illinois 16-yard line in nine plays, the Broncos opened the scoring on the first of John Potter's career-best three field goals on the day to take a 3-0 lead.
"It was really important to get a good drive to start the game and it really set the tone for us," noted Broncos' quarterback Tim Hiller afterward.
Hiller would finish the day by passing for 301 yards and two touchdowns. It was the fifth straight game that Hiller has passed for over 300 yards as the junior signal-caller also eclipsed the 3,000 yards passing mark in his career.
Illinois would answer on its second drive of the opening quarter taking the lead at 7-3 when tailback Jason Ford scored on a one-yard run, capping a 69-yard drive for the Illini that was highlighted by a 61-yard pass from Juice Williams to Jeff Cumberland that gave the Illini a first and goal at the five-yard line.
Williams would finish the game with 396 yards of total offense, leading the Illini with 68 yards rushing in addition to passing for 328 yards and one touchdown. However it would be two crucial second-quarter interceptions thrown by Williams that set up both Broncos' touchdowns.
After the Broncos added another field goal early in the second quarter to close to within 7-6, Williams and the Illini were stymied on the next drive when Western Michigan defensive back Londen Fryar recorded his first interception of the season, picking off a pass intended for Illinois wide receiver Michael Hoomanwanui at the 50-yard line, returning it 11-yards to the Illini 39-yard line.
The Broncos then engineered a quick four-play drive to go up 13-7, capped off by Tim Hiller's 10-yard touchdown pass to Robert Arnheim. It was Arnheim's first career touchdown reception.
Arnheim was pressed into extended duty after wide receiver Schneider Julien left the contest with a shoulder injury. The Broncos were already without sophomore wide receiver Juan Nunez who did not suit up after being injured in last week's contest against Eastern Michigan.
The Broncos defense would strike again on Illinois' next possession as Williams was picked off when Western Michigan's EJ Biggers recorded the Broncos' second interception of the quarter, returning the ball 44 yards to the Illini 33-yard line after Illinois had driven to the Broncos' 35-yard line.
|Broncos' WR Jamarko Simmons toes the line on 15-yard TD catch in 2nd quarter. Photo: Brett Selleck
Western Michigan would add its final touchdown of the contest when Hiller found Jamarko Simmons for a 15-yard touchdown strike, putting the Broncos up 20-7 with under five minutes remaining in the first half.
"Me and Tim (Hiller) were on the same page all week," said Simmons. "We felt good coming into the game."
Simmons, the MAC's leading receiver, racked up 115 yards of his game-high 174 yards receiving in the first half.
It was also a first half that Illinois head coach Ron Zook would rather soon forget.
"We didn't come out and play in the first thirty minutes like we had to play (to win)," noted an exasperated Zook after the game. "We played a good team."
The second half saw an exchange of field goals between the two squads with the Broncos holding a 23-10 edge early in the fourth quarter until Williams and the Illini offense made it interesting when Williams connected with Cumberland again, this time for a 5-yard touchdown that brought the Illini to within 23-17 with 12:30 left in the game.
But Illinois would get no closer thanks to a pressuring Broncos offense that repeatedly hurried and pressured Williams, including sacking Williams twice.
"(Defensive coordinator) Steve Morrison did just an unbelievable job of getting to the quarterback," noted Cubit. "We made him (Illinois QB Juice Williams) throw it up a couple of times and we were fortunate enough to get a couple of picks there."
"When you get a lot of pressure on the quarterback it's easy in the secondary. Balls are floating around and all you have to do is react and make plays, added Broncos' defender EJ Biggers of the Broncos' front-seven's ability to apply pressure to Williams. "The guys did that up front and they helped us a lot on the back end."
|The Broncos applied pressure all game on Illinois QB Juice Williams.
Photo: Brett Selleck
The Illini however still had a chance to complete their comeback attempt after taking the ball at their own one-yard line but their drive stalled at the Broncos' 18-yard line with forty-eight seconds remaining following four straight incompletions as the Broncos' defense came up big again as it had done several times during the contest.
"It was a great feeling for us (the defense) to go out on the field and finish up (the win) at the end," said Biggers.
"This was just an unbelievable win," said Cubit. "This is the third consecutive year that we have beaten a BCS team and that says a lot about our kids."
The win however did not come without a price for the Broncos who had several key starters leave the game with injuries.
Senior wide receiver Schneider Julien left the game with a shoulder injury while defensive back Londen Fryar exited the game in the second quarter with an injury to his left ankle and running back Brandon West left the game with an injured right ankle late in the game.
"To be honest next week (against Toledo) is probably more important than this week and we've got to get our kids ready and healthy to play," said Cubit.
Until then however the Broncos are going to bask just a bit more in their big win.
"This is definitely the best win I have been involved in as a Bronco," said Jamarko Simmons whose eleven receptions against the Illini made him the Broncos' all-time leader with 239 career receptions.
"We really wanted this win and I think we just went out and earned it. We showed the world that we can play with anybody."
Broncos' quarterback Tim Hiller had a unique perspective on Western Michigan's game against Illinois.
Hiller's grandfather, Dan Sabino, played for the Illini in the early 1950's, including Illinois' 1952 Rose Bowl squad.
"He's been at every single game this year, except this one and just went to Florida this past week. Great timing, huh?," Hiller chuckled.
"That made it (the win) even more special though today. He lettered in '50-'51 and '52. He was honorable mention All-American in '52, played in the East-West Shrine Game.
"I knew everything about Illinois football growing up. He's got his jersey and his ring and everything mounted in his office at his house.
"This day was just a fun day and could not have been any better"
Western Michigan AD Pleased : Broncos Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard was all smiles after the game.
"Coach Cubit didn't say it, but he wasn't quite sure I was in my right mind when I scheduled this game," said a beaming Beauregard. "This was really a special week that we orchestrated for the Broncos. We have been here (in Detroit) since Wednesday telling the story about the Broncos.
"I've been around the Broncos for nearly thirty years now and I have had a lot of proud days but this was just a great representation for our university. "We're excited to be back here (at Ford Field) next season against Michigan State."
Beauregard is also unequivocal in her belief that scheduling of "neutral site" games by MAC schools, such as Western Michigan's game against Illinois at Ford Field Saturday, represents a positive scheduling model for the future.
"I really do believe this is a positive thing. You know, commissioner Chryst has been through some tough scheduling. It's hard to get Big Ten teams in our (the MAC's) venues and the last two years we have been able to do that and the Commissioner should take all the credit for that.
"The neutral site piece of that has been new for us. We already had our deal done with Michigan State when Illinois and ourselves were left with openings for this season. There were only about ten schools in the country left scrambling to find games last year. We have a wonderful relationship with Illinois' AD but they weren't really willing to come and play in Kalamazoo so we kind of threw up some other options and put this together."
Beauregard was also a bit surprised at the announced attendance of only 12,865 as released by Ford Field officials.
"I thought it was low too," said Beauregard. "It's their venue and they know what they are doing. I am not sure how they counted or exactly what they did but I'll tell you what, I think if you asked everybody they would tell you there were a lot more people than that in there today."
"Having it televised was wonderful," she continued. "I had about ten calls on my cell phone during the game from all over the conference telling me they were watching the game. We had about sixty members of the media and plenty of scouts were here.
"It was great day to be a Bronco."