DETROIT -- Behind a defense that forced two interceptions and constantly harassed Illinois star quarterback Juice Williams, Western Michigan defeated the Illini, 23-17, in front of 12,865 at Ford Field on Saturday afternoon.
The Broncos (8-2) defeated a Big Ten team for the second consecutive season and knocked off the Illini (5-5) for the first time in school history. The win today was also the fourth this season for a Mid-American Conference school against a team from the Big Ten.
Junior quarterback Tim Hiller led the offense with 301 yards on 28 completions in 40 attempts with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Senior wide receiver Jamarko Simmons was the beneficiary of 11 completions for 174 yards and one score.
Hiller eclipsed 300 yards for the fifth consecutive game and the seventh time this season to reach 3,157 passing yards this season. That makes Hiller only the second Bronco (Tim Lester) in school history to surpass 3,000 yards passing in more than one season.
Simmons also reached a number of milestones. His 11 receptions gave him 240 in his career, two more than Greg Jennings' old school record. Simmons also finished with 84 catches so far this season, making him the first Bronco to corral 80 catches or more in back-to-back seasons. He also finished the day with 1,004 receiving yards this season to become only the fourth WMU player to break that plateau.
The game came down to the final moments after the Broncos held and forced Illinois to punt. The ball went into the endzone and WMU took over with a six-point lead, 23-17, and 4:51 remaining in the game.
The Broncos picked up six yards on the first two plays, but then faced a crucial third-and-four. Hiller lofted a pass down the right sideline that Simmons caught, but he was ruled out-of-bounds. The play was reviewed and overturned by the replay official for a 24-yard completion to midfield. The Broncos didn't earn another first down, but freshman punter Ben Armer punted toward the right corner and it was downed at the one by freshman running back Aaron Winchester with 1:57 left in the contest.
Illinois wouldn't go quietly as Williams found freshman wide receiver A.J. Jenkins for a 54-yard reception down the right sideline to the Western Michigan 18. Just as they had all afternoon, the Bronco defense stiffened and forced four straight incompletions, with senior defensive end Zach Davidson knocking Williams down on fourth down to secure the victory.
Safeties Louis Delmas and Mario Armstrong each had a career-high 12 tackles to lead the Bronco defense. Armstrong also set a career high with two of WMU's nine pass breakups. Starting cornerbacks Londen Fryar and E.J. Biggers both intercepted Williams, with each turnover leading to a score.
Illinois won the toss and elected to defer to the second half, allowing Western Michigan's offense to take the field first.
Brandon West started things off with a 27-yard kickoff return, followed three plays later by a 27-yard completion to Simmons. The Broncos stalled on the next two plays, but Hiller found Simmons again for 12 yards to convert a third-and-six. WMU nearly scored on the next play, but Hiller overthrew a wide open West in the endzone and the Broncos settled for a 31-yard field goal by John Potter. WMU took the lead, 3-0, after a nine-play, 53-yard drive that took 4:12 off the clock.
Behind a tackle for loss from Justin Braska and Nick Varcadipane that forced third and 13, the Broncos forced the Illini into a three-and-out on their first series.
After a short return, WMU started its next drive at its own 12. The Broncos didn't score on the drive, but behind a one-handed 19-yard catch by Simmons, WMU reached midfield and had Illinois pinned inside the 20-yard line after Ben Armer's punt. Kick-catch interference by WMU, however, moved the ball to the UI 31.
The Illini captitalized as Williams found 6-5 wide receiver Jeff Cumberland for a 61-yard reception down the right sideline to the WMU five. Three plays later, Jason Ford took an option pitch and ran into the right corner of the endzone for the touchdown with 2:20 remaining in the first quarter, 7-3. The drive covered 69 yards in only five plays and 1:58 off the clock.
On the second play of the next series, Illinois' Dere Hicks intercepted Hiller and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, but the play was disallowed after Hicks was called for defensive holding and WMU kept possession and earned a first down to the WMU 41. WMU converted another third down after the Illini were penalized for an illegal substitution that moved the ball to the UI 45. Two plays later, Hiller found Ledbetter over the middle and he rambled 19 yards to the 26-yard line. Two plays later the Broncos faced another third down, but converted again on an 11-yard completion by Schneider Julien to the 10-yard line. The Illini finally stopped WMU on third down and forced a 22-yard field goal by Potter. The freshman from Grand Haven, Mich., converted for the second time with 12:04 remaining to cut the deficit to one, 7-6, with 12:04 left in the half. The drive took 5:16 off the clock over 70 yards in 12 plays.
The Broncos stopped the next Illini drive as Londen Fryar made his first interception of the season and seventh of his career and returned it 11 yards to the Illinois 39.
After a timeout, Hiller found Simmons for 27 yards on a crossing route over the middle to the 12-yard line. That completion also pushed Hiller over 3,000 yards passing for the season. He joins Tim Lester as just the second player in school history to have more than one 3,000-yard season.
Two plays later, Hiller added to his total as he found freshman Robert Arnheim on a slant pattern for a 10-yard touchdown. The first touchdown reception for Arnheim, a converted quarterback, gave WMU the lead, 13-7, with 9:06 in the half after a drive that was four plays, 39 yards and 1:18.
The Illini went to the no huddle on their next drive and reached the WMU 28, but back-to-back losses forced a third-and-17. Freshman Josh Price hit Williams as he threw and E.J. Biggers made the interception and returned it 44 yards to the Illinois 44-yard line.
Five plays later, Hiller lofted a pass into the endzone and Simmons laid out and tip-toed the sideline for a 15-yard touchdown reception. The reception by Simmons extended WMU's lead, 20-7, with 4:27 left in the half and made him the first player in school history to amass 80 receptions or more in back-to-back seasons.
Illinois moved the ball again on its next drive, but a facemask penalty on the offense forced a third and 22. Williams nearly threw his third interception as C.J. Wilson got his hands on a bullet from the Illini quarterback. UI was then forced to punt and WMU took over with 43 seconds remaining in the half at their 10-yard line.
Illinois chose not to use its three timeouts and WMU ran out the clock to take a 13-point lead into halftime, 20-7.
Illinois opened the second half with the ball and drove to the WMU 26-yard line where it faced third-and-three. WMU brought the blitz and Dustin Duclo brought pressure that forced Williams to throw the ball away. Illinois set up for a 43-yard field goal, but missed wide right.
WMU took over for the first time in the second half at the 26-yard line, but Hiller was sacked on third down to force an Armer punt. He unleashed a 52-yarder, but Arrelious Benn returned it 31 yards to put the ball back in WMU territory at the 47.
The Illini reached the 38-yard line and were facing third-and-one, but the WMU defense stiffened. Dustin Duclo and Drew Nowak stuffed Daniel Dufrene on third down and then Austin Pritchard planted Williams on fourth down to force an incompletion.
West had a nine-yard run on the next drive to break Greg Jennings' school record (5.093) for career all-purpose yardage, but WMU was unable to earn a first down and Illinois started its next drive at its 22 after an Armer punt.
Williams took over on the next drive and hooked up with Benn for 37 yards to the WMU 11. The defense held as Boston McCornell made an open field tackle on a wide-open Dufrene on third down to force Matt Eller's 20-yard field goal, 20-10, with 4:08 remaining in the third period. The 75-yard drive took eight plays and 3:57.
West added to his new school record with a 39-yard kickoff return from the goal line to open the next possession and then bulldozed a couple of defenders for an 11-yard carry on the first play from scrimmage. Simmons made a 19-yard reception to tie Jennings' school record for career receptions, convert third-and-eight and move WMU to the Illini 29. The drive stalled, but on the first play of the fourth quarter, Potter connected on a career-long 45-yard field goal to push the lead back to 13, 23-10, with 14:55 remaining in the game. The drive covered 34 yards in eight plays and 4:13 off the clock.
Illinois answered right back and moved the ball inside the WMU 25. The Broncos had a chance to get off the field, but Williams found Benn for eight yards on fourth-and-four to extend the drive and a few plays later, Williams scrambled right and found Cumberland in the middle of the endzone for a five-yard score, 23-17, with 12:30 remaining in the contest.
After both teams had failed drives, WMU took over at their own 29 yard line. The Broncos picked up one first down and then Simmons made a 13 yard reception to break Jennings' record of 238 career receptions. The Broncos reached the 20-yard line after a reception by Arnheim, but Illinois stripped the ball and recovered to regain possession with 6:17 remaining.
Williams led Illinois with 68 yards rushing and finished 20-45 for 328 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Benn caught seven passes for 111 yards, while senior linebacker Brit Miller led all players with 17 tackles.
The Broncos return to Mid-American Conference play for Senior Day at Waldo Stadium against Toledo at 2 p.m. next Saturday (Nov. 15). The game will be televised by FSN Ohio and FSN Detroit.