After all, a stout secondary unit that thrived on forcing turnovers and shutting down passing games had no interceptions, allowed 384 passing yards and gave up passing touchdowns of 33, 40, 70 and 18 yards in the Nittany Lions’ come-from-behind 38-31 win.
Watching it all play out in front of him, Shelton’s suspicions of what went wrong were correct: Wisconsin didn’t win 50-50 balls, missed tackles and missed opportunities.
“That’s what it boils down to,” Shelton said. “There’s no magic potion or secret in doing that. When it’s 50-50 between you and the receiver, you got to find a way to make a play. It happened and you’ve got to be able to move on.”
Knowing full well of the shortcomings that cost the group a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, Shelton and his secondary mates couldn’t be more excited for a bounce-back opportunity against No.12 Western Michigan (13-0) in the 81st Cotton Bowl Jan.2 at AT&T Stadium.
Western Michigan doesn’t play in a conference close to the Big Ten, but the Broncos rank close to or ahead of Penn State in most major offensive categories, not to mention have 79 plays of at least 20 yards this season.
“Playing in a big bowl game like this, a New Year’s Six bowl game, against a team that is talented with the passing game, it’s going to be fun,” Shelton said. “As a team and as a unit, we’re just trying to stress correcting the things that we can (from the Big Ten title game) and go out and make the plays.”
The Broncos have three senior wide receivers. Michael Henry and Carrington Thompson have combined for 99 receptions, 1,365 yards and 10 touchdowns. Corey Davis surpasses both of them on his own.
The first player in Western Michigan history to be a consensus All-American, Davis takes full advantage of his 6-3, 213-pound frame. Coming back for his senior season to finish what he and his teammates started, Davis enters the bowl game with 91 catches for 1,427 yards. The 91 catches rank 13th in the FBS and his yards are seventh-best.
“He’s got really good size, gets in and out of his breaks and catches every ball that’s thrown to him,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “He’s just a really talented player and they’ve done a great job getting him the football in different spots. They’ll move him around. They don’t always put him at one spot. It’s not like you always know where he’ll be pre snap.”
Already the all-time leading FBS receiver with 5,212 yards, Davis is the only player in FBS history with 300 catches, 5,000 yards and 50+ touchdowns. He’s also the only player this season in FBS with four halves of at least 130 yards and one touchdown.
And while Western Michigan didn’t play a ranked team all season, Davis had seven catches for 70 yards at Northwestern and four catches for 93 yards at Illinois.
“He’s one of those guys that you noticed during the year,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “When we played Northwestern, you saw him, they opened up with them, and Illinois, so there’s a couple of crossover opponents. Saw some things on TV with them. He’s a really talented player.”
Shelton said Western Michigan’s ability to throw the ball down field and complete passes to all three levels of the defense is similar to that of Penn State. That could be a blessing or a curse.
After rarely getting tested against Penn State, Shelton expects plenty of throws his way, as Davis has caught at least four passes in every game but one and has at least six catches in 10 games.
“If you throw the ball in his vicinity, he’s going to find a way to catch it,” Shelton said. “That’s the kind of receiver I’m sure that quarterback loves. He’s like a blanket. When you are trouble just throw it at him and he’ll make something happen.”
Even after the regression against Penn State, the Badgers rank fourth in scoring defense (15.5 points per game), seventh in total defense (303.0 yards per game) and ninth nationally in passing efficiency defense, with opponents posting a pass efficiency rating of 106.8.
That tends to lead to the belief that the title game was more a blip. Whatever it ends up being, all Shelton cares about is the end result.
“I just want to win,” he said. “I think I’ve had a pretty good career here making plays. I just want to win.”