ERIC OLSON, AP College Football Writer
Western Michigan’s rise under P.J. Fleck has been underscored by his popular “row the boat” mantra. Within the walls of his program, another saying carries as much or more gravitas: “The ball is the program.”
The Broncos are living it so far this season. They’re the only Bowl Subdivision team that has not committed a turnover.
As far as Fleck is concerned, that statistic best explains how his team has won six straight games for its best start since 1941 and entered the Top 25 for the first time, at No. 24.
“You come to one of our practices,” quarterback Zach Terrell said Wednesday, “you’re going to hear ‘the ball is the program’ at least 10 times.”
Flipping the fortunes of the program has been predicated on improving the turnover margin, Fleck said. His first WMU team, in 2013, tied for 104th in the FBS and went 1-11. The Broncos were 49th and 58th while going 8-5 each of the last two years.
The 2016 Broncos are the first team in at least 20 years to commit no turnovers through its first six games, according to WMU and ESPN research. The record for fewest turnovers in a season is eight, shared by four teams.
Terrell has not been intercepted in 143 pass attempts. The Broncos have fumbled seven times and recovered each one. Considering their opponents have lost five of six fumbles, how big a role has luck played in Western Michigan staying turnover-free?
“You’ve got to be able to catch some breaks,” Fleck said. “But we’re big on believing you can create your own breaks.”
That starts with the program’s culture.
Rather than hanging a board in the locker room displaying the Mid-American Conference standings, Fleck allows only a chart that runs down MAC teams’ turnover margins. On their way from the locker room to the practice field, players tap a sign in all capital letters reading — what else? — “THE BALL IS THE PROGRAM.”
And every practice, with no exception, includes a 15-minute period for ball security and ball disruption drills. Wet footballs are used every Thursday and frozen balls come out occasionally as the weather turns colder.
Fleck and his staff came up with a rotation of 12 drills that address almost any situation a turnover or takeaway could occur.
“We teach everything here in incredible detail,” he said.
A player is schooled on how to pick a ball off the ground depending on whether he’s in a cluster of bodies or in the open field. In close quarters, it’s jump on the ball and squeeze it. In the open field, the player is to surround the ball with his feet, bend at the hips and knees, scrape his knuckles on the ground with his pinkies together, scoop up the ball and “put it in the chin.”
“Chin” is the Broncos’ way of saying to hold the ball high and tight. There’s more to it than that, though. Coaches talk about five pressure points for cradling the ball. Even the direction the point of the ball faces is scrutinized.
And then there’s effort, which is part of Fleck’s “row the boat” theme for how the program operates. No one has shown more effort than tight end Donnie Ernsberger, who has recovered four of the Broncos’ seven fumbles.
“He doesn’t get a lot of touches as a receiver, but he’ll put his body on the line,” star receiver Corey Davis said. “He’s sacrificing a lot for this team, and he means a lot to us.”
Fleck said Ernsberger’s fumble recoveries are not by chance.
“He always finds a way to be around a fumble and get in the pile, or to be on the ball when that ball comes out,” he said. “If he were jogging and not finishing the play, he wouldn’t recover those. But we have about 95 Donnie Ernsbergers on our football team.”
Terrell said he had never been around a coach so obsessed with preventing turnovers and credited Fleck with making him think about ball security in a different way.
“It’s not just the person who has it in his hands,” he said. “It’s everybody that determines whether the ball is taken care of. One small detail missed can lead to a catastrophic error, and that’s losing the ball and turning it over.”
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)