ARLINGTON, Texas - Troy Fumagalli ended his junior season like he began it - with a bang.
Starting the season with a seven-catch, 100-yard performance in the 16-14 win over No.5 LSU at Lambeau Field, the junior tight end led the Badgers with six catches and 83 yards, playing a critical role in No.8 Wisconsin’s 24-16 win over previously undefeated No.12 Western Michigan at AT&T Stadium.
“It’s special,” Fumagalli said. “We’ve done such a great job working this offseason. So much work goes into it. Credit to the whole team. It’s a great feeling to come out on top.”
His catches covered the full scope. Fumagalli had leaping grabs for first downs, one-handed snares and critical catches on third down to move the chains. He dropped a touchdown pass in the second quarter (the only target he failed to catch) that forced UW to settle for a field goal but he made up for it with a leaping grab in the back of the end zone to put Wisconsin up 24-10 in the fourth quarter.
“His performance was unreal,” junior receiver Jazz Peavy said. “That’s the Fumagalli we see every day in practice. He’s always making plays. Great hands, great body control. To see him do that on a big stage like this is awesome, and it’s something we all expect.”
Fumagalli started the game emphatically with an acrobatic, one-handed catch on Wisconsin’s opening drive. Facing a third-and-13 from the Broncos’ 32-yard line, senior quarterback Bart Houston found his tight end over the middle. Despite being held on the play, Fumagalli outstretched his left hand and reeled in a 20-yard position to move the chains.
Three plays later, running back Corey Clement ran for a two-yard touchdown to give the Badgers (11-3) an early 7-0 lead.
He resumed his big-play ability in the third quarter, providing key receptions for first downs in that frame. Fumagalli reeled in a six-yard catch on a third-and-five on its first series, then showcasing his athletic ability on a 28-yard leaping reception on a second-and-11 the drive thereafter.
“They started playing downhill, bringing an extra guy down,” Fumagalli said. “You can’t do both sometimes, so we took advantage of that, and that’s where we went.”
With Wisconsin clinging to a seven-point lead, T.J. Edwards’ interception put the Badgers at the Broncos’ 12-yard line and gave Fumagalli a chance to atone for its earlier end-zone drop.
Out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight end) on third-and-six, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook found his tight end in the back of the end zone between linebacker Caleb Bailey and cornerback Darius Phillips. The leaping grab regained UW’s 14-point advantage at 24-10 with just over 12 minutes left in the game.
“He’s unbelievable,” Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said. “We knew he was really good, but we don’t have some 6-3 safeties or anything really to contest him … Schematically created some mismatches here and there that we felt, hey, we got a shot to be able to do this. But when you have a 6-6 right end that has range like that … that’s what happens. There were multiple catches he had that were contested, and we just didn’t come down with it.”
And if he hasn’t done enough, Fumagalli also delivered the final nail in the coffin. Facing a third-and-8 with 2:42 remaining, rather than play it conservatively, head coach Paul Chryst dialed up Fumagalli’s number again. With the offensive line providing solid protection, Houston found Fumagalli wide open for 26 yards to essentially ice the game.
“They got us,” Fleck said. “We had to say we can’t let them get much. This is our only shot. Pretty much thought they were going to run … You got to give them a lot of credit. Their quarterback (Bart Houston) is incredibly accurate (11 of 12) and that’s the best tight end we have faced in the four years here. He’s incredible.”
Four of Fumagalli’s six receptions were on third down, all either moving the chains or producing points. Five of his catches went for first downs or a touchdown, a byproduct of the trust he’s gained with his two quarterbacks this season.
He wasn’t just producing through the air, though. Wisconsin utilized multiple tight end formations for most of the game which led to 184 rushing yards. That included Fumagalli providing a key kick out block out on Peavy’s 51-yard gain on a jet sweep out of 12 personnel.
“Our quarterbacks trust him; he’s got a big reception radius,” Chryst said of Fumagalli. “And he’s done a really nice job this year of continuing to develop as a blocker. He was big today. It was fun to see.”
Ending the 2016 season as the team leader in receptions (47), earning second-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches in the process, Fumagalli’s consistency and big-play ability allowed him to make an impact in the New Year’s Six bowl win, and could serve as a jumping point for an even more potent 2017 season.
“It’s been a heck of a journey, especially with the senior class to give them the opportunities they had and send them out the right way,” Fumagalli said. “It’s been a great journey.”