December 15, 2015

Western Michigan is heading to a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. Now it finally needs to win one.

Standing in the Broncos' way is Middle Tennessee, which can conclude its season with a fifth consecutive victory Christmas Eve in the Bahamas Bowl.

Two years ago, Western Michigan (7-5) won one game in its first season under the spirited P.J. Fleck, who was college football's youngest head coach when he was hired the previous December at age 32 and first in the FBS to be born in 1980s.

Just one season later, the Broncos enjoyed a remarkable turnaround by finishing 8-5 and earning a berth in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Western Michigan is in position to match that 2014 victory total after knocking off its first ranked opponent with a 35-30 win at then-No. 24 Toledo. The victory earned the Broncos a share of their first Mid-American Conference West Division title since 2000.

"I'm so proud of them," Fleck said. "Words can't describe it ... We haven't accomplished our ultimate goals ahead but I'm just proud of the kids."

Making their seventh bowl appearance, the obvious next step for the Broncos is to come away with a victory.

"We continue to accomplish "nevers" in our program," Fleck said. "With elite preparation and execution we hope to also earn our first bowl victory in program history."

Fleck certainly has the talent to make that happen, especially with an offense that enters the bowl season ranked 21st in the FBS with an average of 480.9 yards.

Junior Zach Terrell has thrown for over 8,200 yards in three seasons and tossed a career-high 27 touchdowns this year, while sophomores Jamauri Bogan (5.8 yards per carry) and Jarvion Franklin (4.8) have combined for 1,535 rushing yards.

Daniel Braverman's 103 receptions are second in the FBS, Corey Davis is tied for 15th with a career-high 82 and the pair combined for 2,523 yards and 23 TDs.

Davis had 47 of those catches and scored six TDs while averaging 133.7 receiving yards in the last six games. He had six catches for 139 yards and two scores against Toledo.

"They're a very good football team," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said.

The Broncos, however, allowed an average of 477.7 yards and 32.7 points to MAC champion Bowling Green, runner-up Northern Illinois and Toledo in the last three contests.

That might not bode well against Middle Tennessee, which has outscored its last two opponents 83-14. Paced by quarterback and Conference USA freshman of the year Brent Stockstill and fellow first-year standout receiver Richie James, the Blue Raiders rank 17th with 310.4 passing yards per game.

Only Braverman and Tajae Sharp (111) of UMass finished with more than the 100 receptions James hauled in while amassing 1,220 yards and six touchdowns.

"He's a very humble young man," Rick Stockstill said of James. "He's an extremely hard worker and has shown that since he's been in our program. He's had a lot of good people around him to help him achieve what he has."

Brent Stockstill is 11th in the FBS with 3,678 passing yards and, like Terrell, has thrown 27 TDs.

"If you came to our practices or come to our game, you would not know that he was my son if you didn't already know it," his father said. "I'm probably harder on him than anyone on the team."

Sitting 3-5 heading into November, Middle Tennessee's season wasn't very promising. Then it won 27-24 at home against Marshall and followed that victory by allowing 31 total points and an average of 304.3 yards in the final three contests to earn a second bowl bid in three seasons.

"You stay committed and focused on what you can control and that's what this team did," Rick Stockstill said. "We were fortunate enough to close out the season winning four in a row. It just goes back to the leadership, resiliency and persistence of this football team."

The Blue Raiders have dropped two straight bowl games following a 42-32 victory over Southern Mississippi in the 2009 New Orleans Bowl.

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