ARLINGTON, Texas – Preparing to play his 54th and final game at the University of Wisconsin, senior Vince Biegel is still in search of the perfect game where every tackle is made, every assignment is followed and every opportunity is cashed in.
“I don’t know if it’s achievable,” the outside linebacker says, “but it’s my job and my responsibility to go out there every single day and strive for it.”
That fire from Biegel and his teammates has kept Wisconsin’s on-field production among the best in the nation despite change having been the norm in recent history. With four different coaches calling the shots and countless assistant coaches helping install the game plan, the Badgers have averaged 10 wins over the last eight years.
That harden resiliency has been on display this season. Throughout the 13 games, the Badgers lost both starting inside linebackers and kicker Rafael Gaglianone to season-ending injuries, lost Biegel for two games against top-5 opponents and played six games against top-10 teams.
And yet the Badgers won 10 games, including the Big Ten West division, and are playing in a sixth January bowl game since 2010.
It’s part of the reason why Wisconsin’s players insist it won’t have a letdown when it takes on No.12 Western Michigan (13-0) at AT&T Stadium tomorrow afternoon in the 81st Cotton Bowl.
In the past five years, major conference teams that have lost championship games have a 7-13 record in their bowl matchups. It’s the challenge Wisconsin faces after blowing a 21-point lead to Penn State in the Big Ten title game Dec. 3.
“I think it's almost bittersweet because we did a lot to get to that game, beat a lot of really good teams,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “But just the couple games that we lost kind of hurts, especially the Big Ten championship. I think it's something that stings with a lot of guys.”
And if players are trying to forget about it, the topic has been a constant topic of conversation during their media sessions since arriving last Monday. But while there’s a far cry from the Cotton Bowl having the same prestige as the Rose Bowl, head coach Paul Chryst believes the hangover started to shake off once the full squad got back on the practice field in mid-December.
“They’re excited about the next opportunity,” Chryst said. “They know what it took to get the opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl and certainly want to finish it out the right way and know it’s a good opponent. You don’t go undefeated without being a good football team.”
“I think there’s still a taste in their mouth, but I like where they’re at that way,” he added. “I think, when you watch Western Michigan, you see a team that can challenge you in a lot of different ways.”
Wisconsin has been down this road before though. The Badgers are one of those seven teams in recent years to bounce back from a loss, defeating No.19 Auburn in the Outback Bowl to finish off the 2014 season after suffering a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in Indianapolis weeks earlier.
“There's a lot of teams in college football who don't get this opportunity to play in a bowl game, especially a huge one like the Cotton Bowl against an undefeated team,” Edwards said. “We lost the game, but you can't look back. You look back and correct what happened. Just win the big game.”
The Broncos and Alabama are the only two remaining undefeated division 1 teams, and Western Michigan has earned its spot in the New Year’s Six bowl games with an explosive offense, a talented front seven and navigating a schedule that includes beating two power five schools on the road and winning the MAC championship for the first time since 1988.
For those dismissing the opponent, the last time Wisconsin faced an undefeated mid-major in a bowl game, the Badgers lost 21-19 to TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
“Western Michigan is a talented football team,” Biegel said. “Say what you want about what conference they're in. This is a talented team, and they've got talented players on that roster. We're excited to be playing in the Cotton Bowl against them, just us going out there and kind of rewriting their Cinderella story and kind of turning it into our final stamp on our season.
“They've got a very well-coached team, got talented players. But I think we also have some great weapons to counter their talents.
“That goes back to the type of characters we have on our team, the level of expectations they have for themselves and the defense. It’s encouraging to hear guys say that. It means they aren’t complacent. When a team starts getting complacent, starts overlooking plays, starts loafing, that would be a point of concern. For guys to still have that same hungry approach they had back in fall camp and early September, that’s encouraging at this point in time.”
Graduating only 10 seniors in the two-deep depth chart and few juniors debating entering the N.F.L. draft, Wisconsin is expected to be a contender in the Big Ten and national landscape next season, especially with a more manageable schedule.
But while people will point to Western Michigan wanting to go undefeated and silence their doubters as the team that has more to play for, Wisconsin wants to make sure it ends a season of low outside expectations with a third straight bowl victory.
“I promise you, they do not care more,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We want this game bad. We have such a sour taste in our mouths, such a bitter taste from a performance we're not very proud of. And we're men on a mission to show people that we're out here to kick butt and show people what Wisconsin football is all about.”