Purdue coach Danny Hope sold school officials on his vision of winning with special teams when they picked him to replace the retiring Joe Tiller after the 2008 season.
That facet of the game helped the Boilermakers beat Western Michigan 37-32 on Tuesday night in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Purdue recovered two onside kicks and Raheem Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score that put Purdue up for good midway through the second quarter.
"The spread offense was the edge (with Tiller)," Hope said. "I wanted our edge to be special teams."
Caleb TerBush took the final snap at Ford Field, sprinted to the sideline and handed the football to Hope, who was recently given a contract extension.
"It's a moment that we've been waiting for the last three years," Hope said.
The Boilermakers (7-6) almost didn't beat the Broncos (7-6) despite having a double-digit lead for two-plus quarters.
Third-string running back Reggie Pegram scored the first two TDs of his career and Carson Wiggs made two field goals to help Purdue to take a 27-15 lead in the first half.
Wiggs also recovered one of his onside kicks, both of which he tapped toward a sideline after running at full speed as if he was trying to boot the ball deep.
"Two onside kicks really hurt us," Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said. "We never got a break on defense in the first half."
The Broncos got the ball with a chance to go ahead, but their comeback hopes ended when quarterback Alex Carder fumbled for his fifth turnover with just under 2 minutes left. Ryan Russell forced the final fumble and Bruce Gaston recovered to seal the win.
"It was nerve-racking," Purdue linebacker Joe Holland said. "But as a defender, you want the game to come to you."
The Boilermakers played in a bowl for the first time since 2007, when they beat Central Michigan — also in Detroit.
Western Michigan, meanwhile, fell to 0-5 in postseason play.
"I thought we'd win and walk out of here happy," Cubit said.
Purdue's Akeem Shavers ran for a career-high 148 yards on 22 carries, filling in for the injured Ralph Bolden, and was named the game's MVP.
TerBush was 8 of 13 for 101 yards with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Gary Bush midway through the third quarter that put Purdue up 34-18. Robert Marve was 6 of 7 for 76 yards with a 1-yard scoring pass to Pegram in the first quarter.
Purdue defensive end Gerald Gooden had two of his team's four interceptions, and gave back one of those two turnovers back to the Broncos in a game filled with miscues and missed opportunities for both teams.
Western Michigan's star receiver, Jordan White, who drew at least one NFL scout to watch him, caught 13 passes — including a one-handed grab — for 249 yards and a score. He was given a sixth season of eligibility this year because of injuries.
"We're about 10 points from being 10-3," said White, who set MAC marks for yards receiving in a season and career. "I think we had all the pieces to the puzzle but we didn't make it happen on the field."
Carder was 31 of 57 for 413 yards with three TDs. But the junior matched a career high with four interceptions and gave up the ball a fifth time to end the Broncos' chances to rally in their home state in front of tens of thousands of their fans.
The Purdue headed back across the border to Indiana happy, especially school officials who added two years to Hope's deal last week to keep him under contract through 2016.
"Big difference between being a bowl participant and a bowl champion," Hope said. "It builds great momentum for our team and will give us a shot in the arm with recruiting and will energize our fan base."