DETROIT — Greg Windham kneeled alone at midfield, eyes glued to the turf. Behind him, the Western Michigan crowd roared.
His preseason dream was to win a conference championship. With 84 seconds left, Windham had 75 yards to end his team’s 48-year conference title drought.
And then it was stolen away.
In its best game this season, Ohio had its worst loss: a 29-23 defeat to No. 17 Western Michigan on Friday night in the Marathon Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
Trailing 23-7 at halftime, Ohio recovered, cutting the lead to 26-23 with 7:14 remaining.
After forcing a Western Michigan field goal with a 1:24 left, Windham, who started the game on the bench, led the Bobcats on one final push for a title.
“I told my coaches and all my teammates, I was gonna give it all I got,” Windham said.
First it was an 18-yard pass to Elijah Ball; then it was two 10-yard completions to Sebastian Smith and Maleek Irons, respectively. On the Broncos 37 with 56 seconds left, Windham dropped back once more.
This time, Western Michigan linebacker Robert Spillane caught the ball.
“I got my opportunity and made the most out of it,” Windham said. “Unfortunately, we came up short.”
Entering the game as 17-point underdog, Ohio resembled its expectations. In its first four possessions, the team fumbled, punted, fumbled again and then punted again.
Redshirt freshman Quinton Maxwell, similarly to performances in previous weeks, struggled to move the offense. After overthrowing Kyle Belack late in the first quarter, Maxwell was benched for the quarterback he’d previously beaten out.
By then, Ohio already trailed 9-0, but everything changed. Windham looked encouraged and the offense looked revived.
In his first play since Oct. 27 at Toledo, he connected with Papi White across the middle for a 67-yard completion. Two plays later he found Jordan Reid in the end zone for a touchdown.
Windham pounded his chest and nodded his head in celebration. He was back. The Ohio offense was, too.
By the time he took the field for the final drive, he’d already compiled 176 yards and three touchdown passes. Suddenly, a Western Michigan team that was expected to dominate was looking frazzled.
On the final Bobcat possession, Windham said play calls were simple: either deep seam-routes or comebacks. On the interception, the play call switched and Windham expected to have a receiver cutting across the middle.
“I didn’t see the backer,” he said. “Good play by (Spellane). He read my eyes. …So that was a mental mistake on my part and it cost us the game.”
Coach Frank Solich differed.
“I thought it was a great performance,” he said of Windham.
For Windham, he played the best game of his career. The tragic downfall is that his impact started too late.
Had the Bobcats won, it would’ve been their first MAC title since 1968. Instead, Friday was the fourth time in Solich’s 12 seasons that Ohio has made it to Detroit, only to fall short in every appearance.
“It definitely hurts,” Reid said. “This is what we’ve been working for all season, all football camp, all summer, and then 12 weeks to get to this point. That just comes down to us finishing, period.”