DETROIT — Robert Spillane has always been a man of destiny.
As a junior in high school, he looked coach P.J. Fleck in the eyes and said it was his destiny to be a Bronco. He wanted to "Row the boat."
Maybe it was a Fleck's defensive scheme that put him in position as the Bobcats marched down the field with victory in their eyes. Or maybe it was just destiny.
Spillane came out of nowhere to intercept Ohio quarterback Greg Windham and give Western Michigan the 29-23 win in the Marathon Mid-American Conference Championship Game and probably a trip to the Cotton Bowl.
"If it wasn't me making good plays, somebody was going to make the play," Spillane said. "We have 11 playmakers, so he happened to throw the ball to me and that's how it ended."
Four years ago, he sat in front of Fleck and his disapproving mother and made the commitment to Fleck's squad. For Fleck, there might not be a Cotton Bowl or an undefeated season without Spillane.
Spillane stripped Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson at the one-yard line in week one of the season to give the Broncos a 1-0 start to the season — their undefeated season.
"It's only fitting that Robert Spillane strips the ball at Northwestern to make us 1-0," Fleck said. "And they're going in to score. At the goal line he rips the ball loose, and Robert Spillane ends the story, ends the book of the regular season with a pick. Only fitting."
And he helped Western Michigan through its toughest MAC game of the season, one in which Ohio came out and gave Western Michigan the best blow it could. The Bobcats punches wobbled the Broncos, but they didn't fall. As Fleck said, they just kept their oars in the water.
“That’s the No. 1 defense in the conference that we were playing, that’s a Frank Solich football team," Fleck said. "They are one of the best teams in our conference, the second best team now. They came out and punched us right in the mouth. Right in the mouth. It was a battle, that was a championship game."
Ohio's punches resulted in the closest MAC game of the season for Western Michigan, the only game decided by less than two touchdowns.
The Bobcats couldn't run the ball — the Broncos held the Bobcats to 37 yards rushing — but Windham's arm and Ohio's stout defense almost cost Fleck's squad a spot in the Cotton Bowl.
"That defense was stingy," Fleck said. "We didn’t play bad, they made us play bad. They forced turnovers. Gotta give them all the credit in the world.”
Solich, looking for his first MAC Championship in his 12-year career, was defeated by the man who he had helped mentor, the man who could not have been more different than he. For today, youth defeated experience.
“You’ve gotta give Frank Solich and his football team a lot of credit, he’s a class act," Fleck said. "He’s a hall-of-famer. He has been nothing but first-class to me. Sits by me at head coaches meetings, educates me, talks me through different things. He never had to do that as a young-punk 32-year-old in the room not knowing anybody."
As Fleck and the Broncos await their postseason fate, it seemed surreal that the team that went 1-11 just three seasons ago hoisted a trophy. It seemed surreal that a coach who talks more about oars and boats than football out-dueled a former Nebraska coach.
And it seemed surreal that a team from the Group of 5 will likely get a chance to punch with the big boys of college football on New Year's Day. It all started with, of all things, failing.
"I just believe in this team," Fleck said. "I knew that they would find a way to win this football game. Now, three years ago, we would have found a way to lose the football game. This team has failed so much that they're a champion."