Western Michigan looks for perfection vs. Wisconsin in Cotton Bowl (Jan 02, 2017)
DALLAS -- Western Michigan goes for more than a perfect season on Monday at the Cotton Bowl when the Broncos carry the No. 15 ranking in the College Football Playoff poll into their third game of the season against a Big Ten team.
Eighth-ranked Wisconsin (10-3) draws the only undefeated FBS team other than No. 1 Alabama when the Broncos (13-0) attempt to make a statement for the little guys as the most prominent representative of the Group of 5 in the bowl picture this season.
It could be the capper on a coming out party for the Broncos and 36-year-old head coach P.J. Fleck, whose "row the boat" mantra is more of a mandate for WMU. Fleck learned of bowl pairings when the rest of the country did -- 30 days before the Cotton Bowl -- and immediately reminded his troops that the mission is theirs for the taking.
"Who are we paying attention to? Why are we paying attention to anyone? We are 13-0. We are the best Group of 5 team in the country," Fleck said.
Wisconsin blew the doors off of Penn State in the first half of the Big Ten championship game -- jumping ahead 28-7 -- and appeared ticketed for Pasadena and the Rose Bowl until hitting snooze in the second half and allowing the Nittany Lions to rally for a 38-31 victory that still sits in the craw of UW captains.
"It sucks to think back on now," Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston said.
Wisconsin's defense allowed big plays in bunches in Indianapolis, when Penn State's Trace McSorley had TD tosses of 18, 33, 40 and 70 yards and put up 384 passing yards.
Fleck, a former wide receiver in the MAC at Northern Illinois, is decidedly and offensive-minded coach. Western Michigan has big-play pop with quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis leading the way. Davis is projected by NFLDraftScout.com as a top-50 pick in the 2017 draft. He had 91 receptions for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns this season and is the all-time leader in the FBS with 5,068 career receiving yards.
Terrell had 32 TDs, three interceptions and a 70.8 completion percentage.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us," Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel said. "I think we've definitely taken some things away from the Penn State game that will help us and carry over to the bowl game here. Western Michigan's got a lot of weapons, but I think we have some great weapons here to kind of go against what they have and come out with a win at the end of the day."
The Badgers are keyed by senior running back Corey Clement, who will go from Cotton Bowl to preparing for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The 227-pound back has 3,021 career rushing yards, including 1,304 this season despite battling a nagging ankle injury. He has 20-plus carries and 100-plus rushing yards in seven of Wisconsin's last eight games.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said running back Javion Franklin -- the team's top rusher with 1,300 yards -- keys much of the offense. When Franklin isn't going great, WMU has Jamauri Bogan, who finished the regular season with 865 rushing yards, eight touchdowns.
The Badgers are in the top seven in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who likened the Western Michigan spread offense to that of Ohio State, said the Cotton Bowl can be a prove-it game for his team, too.
"I know our guys would love a chance to play (Penn State) again, but that's not the way it works. You go back and you learn from it and you move forward," Wilcox said.
Already Western Michigan has wins over Illinois and Northwestern, hardly the muscle of the Big Ten conference but significant for the MAC champions. It's more than feasible that with another blow to a Power 5 team, WMU will celebrate ending the season in the top 10.
"All we control is winning the games on our schedule, and we've done that," Terrell said.