It was insult to injury after a lack of pass rush after things started spiraling out of control.
Leading 28-7 with 5:15 left in the second half, a lead built in part by stopping Penn State on two fourth-and-short situations near midfield, Wisconsin’s inability to get to quarterback Trace McSorley helped the Nittany Lions score touchdowns on each of their next four possessions to earn a 38-31 victory in the Big Ten championship game, denying UW its first conference title and Rose Bowl berth since the 2011-12 season.
“We just needed more pass rush,” James said. “I think me and Conor could have brought that, but at the same time our guys up front were playing real well. They were doing the best they could. We could have done some things, too, but we just had to learn from it and get better.”
There has been no official injury report listed but both players are expected to play Monday for No.8 Wisconsin (10-3) against the high-octane offense of No.12 Western Michigan (13-0) in the 81st Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
Sheehy injured his right thumb against Minnesota in the regular season finale, causing his hand to be clubbed. He has shed the club in this week of practice but his arm remains in a bulky cast. Head coach Paul Chryst said Sheehy’s chances to play are good.
James wasn’t listed on the injury report entering the Penn State game but was dealing with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half of the Gophers. Unable to practice during the week of prep, James was going to be used in only emergency situations, but even then didn’t feel he would have been very effective.
He needed a couple weeks of rest but proclaims that he’s 100 percent, good news for a Badgers’ team going against a Broncos offense averaging 43.5 points per game with a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver.
“The key thing is the balance that they have,” James said. “I think a lot of people think of them as just a passing team, but they have a great running attack. The first thing for us as a front seven is to stop the run and force them to throw. We’re on the right track.”
The group won’t make excuses, but there’s no question James and Sheehy make an impact. James leads the defensive line with 3.5 sacks and Sheehy has a line-best four tackles for loss, not to mention the ability to play end or nose tackle. The latter came in handy when sophomore Olive Sagapolu missed five conference games with an arm injury.
“I think both of them give you a ton of energy,” Chryst said. “I think they’re both good football players, and they give you energy to the team. They’re guys that played a lot of snaps that I think are significant parts to the success (of the team). It’s good to have them. I think there’s a good chance with Conor. We’ll see for sure, but Alec’s doing more each day, so that part’s been good.”
Getting the opportunity to be Wisconsin full-time kickoff specialist, sophomore P.J. Rosowski and special teams quality control assistant Taylor Mehlhaff – a former UW kicker – set a goal of hitting 75 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone.
Averaging 63.6 yards on kicks, Rosowski has delivered in his role, registering 47 touchbacks on 74 kickoffs (63.5 percent) with only one kick out of bounds. If gambling returners had taken a knee more often, the touchback number would be a lot higher.
“For the most part we’ve done a good job,” Rosowski said. “We’ve made some big plays in some big situations, but we always can get better.”
The number is important considering UW’s kick return defense has had coverage issues. UW allowed a 77-yard kickoff return to Iowa’s Desmond King in the fourth quarter and a 69-yard return to Minnesota’s KiAnte Hardin that swung momentum back to the Gophers.
The Badgers rank 53rd in the country in kickoff return defense, giving up 20.14 yards per return, and will have another tough test in cornerback Darius Phillips.
The first player in Western Michigan history to score five non-offensive touchdowns in a season, Phillips has returned a punt and kickoff for a score, averaging 22.7 yards on his 36 returns.
“We’ve definitely talked about him,” Rosowski said. “He definitely has got good quickness and is a good athlete, but for me it doesn’t really affect anything. I just try to do my job, the same thing every time. That’s an external factor that you can’t put in your mind.”
Emphasis on Turnovers
Monday’s Cotton Bowl will feature two teams that know how to generate turnovers. The Broncos lead the country in turnover margin at plus-19 and were the last team in the country to commit a turnover, coming in the seventh game.
“I think that's a credit to the type of players they have on offense, very reliable,” Wisconsin outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “I think it starts at a quarterback position, a guy who makes smart decisions and puts his offense in great positions.”
Western Michigan has created 15 interceptions and recovered 11 fumbles, while the Badgers have recorded 21 interceptions on the season, the most of any power five program.
“I think that mindset (of generating turnovers) started back in fall camp,” Biegel said. “Coach Wilcox is huge on turnovers and has done a great job on different types of drills. Our practices revolve around creating takeaways. I think that foundation we set in camp has kind of paid dividends throughout the rest of the season.”
Western Michigan is 18-6 when it wins the turnover battle under Fleck. Wisconsin is 12-2 under Chryst when forcing at least two turnovers.