ARLINGTON, Texas – T.J. Edwards felt like he had come full circle, a strange sensation for a player just completing his third year of college football.
But getting the opportunity to play the college he was originally committed to as a senior in high school, the Wisconsin sophomore wanted to enjoy the opportunity and make a couple big plays in the process.
Check and check.
Named the game’s defensive most valuable player, Edwards had a team-high 10 tackles but delivered a critical interception in the fourth quarter that helped No.8 Wisconsin earn a 24-16 victory over No.12 Western Michigan in the 81st Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
“That’s the theme with our defense, just creating a spark,” Edwards said. “Sometimes that’s what hurts us. We need to find a way to not have to get that spark first to get going, but it always seems like someone comes up with a huge play. This time it was my turn.”
Western Michigan (13-1) had been stingy with the ball all season, entering the game with only seven giveaways. Senior quarterback Zach Terrell was even stingier with only three interceptions. Getting the ball out quick on his attempts and spreading the field, interceptable passes were few and far between.
So when Wisconsin’s special teams pinned Western Michigan – trailing 17-10 – at the three-yard line at the beginning of the final quarter, UW’s defense wanted to deliver with a purpose. They only needed one play.
With linebacker T.J. Watt coming from the outside and defensive end Alec James bringing pressure up the middle, Terrell was contained in the pocket and forced a pass over the middle. With nobody around him except fellow inside linebacker Leon Jacobs, Edwards made the pick.
“The linebacker did a good job keeping him contained, forcing him to sit in the pocket and make a throw,” Edwards said. “I’m just glad I could make a play.”
Three plays later, Wisconsin (11-3) cashed in the drive with points to extend the lead back to 14.
“Before that drive we all said we’re going out here and they’re not getting a single first down,” Watt said. “To lay the hammer down and put the game to rest, that was a huge play for us.”
Shelton Delivers Against Davis
Sojourn Shelton viewed his task Monday as an audition of sorts. Not viewed as having ideal size for a N.F.L. cornerback, Shelton was going to be matching up against Western Michigan senior receiver Corey Davis, the FBS leader in career reception yards and a likely high draft pick coming up this spring.
If he shows the tape to scouts and executives, Shelton will have a lot to be pleased about.
“He had to earn it,” Shelton said of Davis, who finished with six catches for 73 yards and an 11-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. “Covering for eight seconds isn’t easy, especially a guy like that. Hats off to him (for the touchdown), but he had to earn it. As a secondary, we did a good job of stopping him.”
Davis entered the game with 10 games of at least six catches this season. He caught 12 catches for 272 yards in three touchdowns against Ball State, 13 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo and eight catches for 144 yards and a score against Ohio in the MAC championship game.
After rarely getting thrown at against Penn State, Shelton was assigned to him almost every play.
“I had a pretty good outing against a receiver that’s supposed to be a first-round pick,” he said. “I see why all the scouts are raving about him. He’s an excellent receiver, hard to guard, and hopefully that helps me (with my draft stock).”
Scoring 43.5 points per game and averaging 496.7 yards of total offense per game, Wisconsin held Western Michigan to a season-low points and 280 yards of offense (114 in the first half).
“At halftime we didn’t make any adjustments or changes,” Shelton said. “It was just a matter of us doing the things like winning on third down. We just found a way to slow their offense down.”
After Penn State threw for 384 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Nittany Lions’ come-from-behind victory in the Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin held Western Michigan to 157 and only Davis’ late score.
“The defense didn’t let our team down in the Big Ten championship, it was the secondary,” Shelton said. “We made a big emphasis on trying to not be that group and just come back out here and be ourselves, making plays on the ball, challenging guys and getting teams to try to find another way to beat us.”
Shelton’s final start of his career was his 51st, a new school record. He started all 27 games the last two years.
“I never would of imagine coming in as a freshman starting that many games,” Shelton said. “It’s a big accomplishment.”
Deal Gets Work
After another season plagued with an ankle injury, tailback Taiwan Deal is anxious for his upcoming surgery to hopefully fix the problem for good. Before that happens, Deal felt he still had some good work left in his injured body.
The sophomore was used on Wisconsin’s first series of the game, a bit of a surprise since he had only received 10 carries since the start of Big Ten play. Deal finished with two carries for nine yards and was able to give seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale a couple of breathers.
“This week I’ve been practicing to help Corey and Dare out,” Deal said. “I took some 11 personnel things, some normal down-and-distance things. (Running back coach John) Settle had me ready to jump in and play whenever they needed me to.”
Deal replaced Bradrick Shaw as the team’s third tailback. Head coach Paul Chryst said after the game that Shaw was injured during bowl practices and missed significant time. Shaw was available if needed but wasn’t used.
With the graduation of Clement and Ogunbowale, Deal hopes the surgery will give him back some of the confidence he’s lost having missed 11 games the last two seasons.
“I’ve been battling this ankle thing since last year,” Deal said. “To finally fix all of this, come back strong and prepare to be a running back at Wisconsin, it’s something I look forward to. I’m ready to come back fresh. Coming back from this whole ankle situation is my goal.”
Extra Points: Wisconsin outscored teams 88-22 in the first quarter. Western Michigan was the eighth opponent they shut out in the opening 15 minutes … Watt finished the season with 11.5 sacks – fifth most in a single season in UW history … Wisconsin is now 14-14 all-time in bowl games … Former Wisconsin offensive line and current Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick, Wisconsin receiver commit Cade Green and Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst (Paul Chryst’s nephew) were all in attendance.