ARLINGTON, Texas – It could be considered a microcosm of Wisconsin’s season, a fitting final tribute to a Badgers team many considered would be playing in the Quick Lanes Bowl or staying home for the postseason.
There was moments of domination, moments of frustration and plenty of instances of adversity.
That’s what made the confetti falling down on their heads all that more invigorating and satisfying.
Maybe it wasn’t as neat and tidy as most thought it would be, but No.8 Wisconsin’s 24-16 victory over No.12 Western Michigan in the 81st Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium Monday afternoon was fitting in that regard, too. Far from flawless but still good enough to win its first BCS/New Year’s Six bowl in 17 years.
Winning at least 11 games for the fourth time in program history, Wisconsin (11-3) finished the year 4-3 against the Associated Press top 12 with its only three losses coming to teams entering bowl season ranked in the top six, all by a touchdown.
“As a team we were doubted all year so that was motivation for us,” senior safety Leo Musso said. “We played a lot of great teams and we knew we were a great team. We’ve been on a big stage before and I think that definitely helped out.”
Wisconsin’s offense was balanced and productive. The Badgers ran for 184 yards and passed for 172. In a year where Wisconsin’s two-quarterback system looked clumsy and awkward at times, but senior Bart Houston (11 of 12 for 159) and freshman Alex Hornibrook (2 of 2 for 19) completed 92.8 percent of their passes – the second-highest mark in bowl history.
Most importantly, they led an offense that didn’t turn the ball over once.
“I’m glad he got to go out like that, and I’m glad we got to give him his last win,” receiver Jazz Peavy said of Houston. “He had an excellent game. He prepared just as hard as anyone else on this team for this game.”
With its offensive line having an average three inch size advantage and 43 pounds on Western Michigan’s defensive line, Wisconsin ran the ball for 104 yards in the first quarter and for 48 more yards in the second quarter, getting touchdown runs from seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. Also attacking the edges with short pass plays to the tailbacks, Wisconsin registered a total of nine plays over 20 yards, a season high.
“We wanted to make sure we started out as fast as we could,” Ogunbowale said, responsible for two of the chunk plays. “Feel like we could have started faster, but we made some big plays and that’s what we needed to do.”
But the star of the show, as it’s been all season, was the defense. Although allowing two touchdown drives that totaled 17 minutes, 44 seconds, Wisconsin held an offense averaging 43.5 points per game to a season-low and only 280 yards of total offense.
“So many guys were part of a real good defense,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “It was a defense that was fun to watch. We were far from perfect, but they were good. They led us this year. It took everyone.”
The big difference for Wisconsin was the play of its two MVPs. A match-up problem for Western Michigan (13-1), tight end Troy Fumagalli caught six passes for a game-high 83 yards. He caught one one-handed for 20 yards on third-and-13 that set up Wisconsin’s first score, made a leaping grab for a 28-yard gain and elevated for an 8-yard touchdown catch to make it 24-10 with 12:26 remaining
“We’ve had a number of really good tight ends at Wisconsin, and they’re all different, but Fum has got the ability to be a match-up problem for a number of teams or a number of individuals if they’re playing him man,” Chryst said. “He’s big. He’s skilled. He runs well enough and has a great knack to separate.
“I think another thing that’s important is out quarterbacks trust him, so he’s got a big reception radius … He was big today. It was fun to see.”
Hornibrook initially read on third-and-6 was to Peavy. When that was covered up, Hornibrook saw his big weapon moving across the back of the end zone.
“I threw it to the spot he was going to be a little bit before he came out of his break,” Hornibrook said. “He worked on that one during the week. Not exactly like that but it wasn’t too bad.”
The scoring drive was only 12 yards for Wisconsin, prime position set up by T.J. Edwards. Named the game’s defensive MVP, Edwards – a former Western Michigan commit – registered only the fourth interception off Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell (and just the eighth turnover this season) when a forced crossing route fell right into his hands.“We just needed a play to spark it,” Edwards said, finishing the game with 10 tackles. “I am just glad I was able to do that.”
That play also equaled redemption for Wisconsin’s defense. Picked a part by Penn State’s passing attack the final 25 minutes when its pass rush vanished, Terrell’s throw was rushed out of the end zone with outside linebacker T.J. Watt coming off the edge and defensive end Alec James – who missed the title game – pushing his one-on-one match-up into the backfield.
“We definitely had great pressure,” Watt said. “The blitzes and pressure was working all day long. I think we could have done a better job getting him down … but for the most part I think we did a great job on him.”
As expected, Western Michigan didn’t go quietly. Much like their 16-play, 8:45 drive to cut the score to 14-7, the Broncos cut the lead to eight when Terrell’s desperation heave on fourth-and-6 landed in the arms of Corey Davis for an 11-yard touchdown. The missed extra point cut the deficit to eight with 3:27 remaining.
UW grinded to victory from there. The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, Houston hit Fumagalli for 26 yards on third-and-8 and Austin Ramesh ran for 10 yards on third-and-6. One kneel down finished it, wiping away some of the stain from losing the conference title game nearly a month ago.
“All year long we showed resiliency when our backs were against the wall, except for that Penn State game” Watt said. “That’s why it was such a bitter taste. We came out here and we felt the game was going the same way in the first half. We felt it slip away a little bit. We came out, started strong in the second half and showed this defense is the real deal.”
Starting the season unranked, Wisconsin has a chance to finish ranked in the top five. And considering the Badgers will lose only five senior starters and possibly two juniors, Wisconsin will begin next season on many radars.
It’s something the group earned with its perseverance and grit.
“A lot of things are out of your control like injuries, the strength of schedule,” senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “Our team was really able to persevere. We were able to stay true to ourselves, go out there and work hard every day. It’s also a credit to Coach Chryst and our coaching staff to help keep us focused. What a great way to finish off for the seniors. What a great way to finish off for the rest of the team and carry that momentum as they start offseason training.”