Upon Further Review: Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan

Badgers tight end Troy Fumagalli caught a touchdown in the 4th quarter to put the game out of reach for Western Michigan.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a tough loss in the Big Ten Championship Game and then having to play a non-Power 5 team in its bowl game, Wisconsin certainly had excuses for coming out flat against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.

But the Badgers did anything but, running down the throats of Western Michigan to take a quick 14-0 lead.

The Broncos adjusted and got back in the game, but Wisconsin held down the high-powered offense to a season low in points and total yards. The Badgers run game would be stymied for much of the rest of the contest, but their limited passing attack was nearly perfect, coming up with a few clutch plays spearheaded by tight end Troy Fumagalli.

In the end, Wisconsin handed Western Michigan its first loss of the season, 24-16, in winning its first major January bowl game since back-to-back Rose Bowl wins in 1999 and 2000.

A recap of Monday’s bowl game:

CLASS LESSONS

— Think Wisconsin wanted to run the ball? On the Badgers’ opening touchdown drive they ran it nine times in 11 plays, including their first six. The blocking on Corey Clement’s touchdown to finish off the drive was as impressive as anything you’ll ever see, with a big lane opening for Clement so he could go in untouched from 2 yards out.

— After Alex Hornibrook missed the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin went back to using both quarterbacks. Bart Houston got the start and played the first two series, leading the Badgers to touchdowns both times. Hornibrook entered on the third series and had a three-and-out. On a third-and-12, he didn’t throw the best pass on an out route as George Rushing had to come back to the ball and the ball was spotted short of a first (Houston would have a similar pass later in the game and hit Rushing one yard beyond the sticks). Houston would re-enter the game on the fourth series and Wisconsin would get a field goal.

— It was interesting that Hornibrook was put in the game when Wisconsin took over possession in the red zone despite Houston being the more mobile QB. And it paid off as he threw a touchdown pass to Troy Fumagalli. Hornibrook did throw off his back foot — yikes! — but threw the ball high, where only Fumagalli could catch it.

— Fumagalli had a great game, but he also had perhaps Wisconsin’s biggest offensive gaffe. Late in the first half, on a third-down play while open in the end zone he dropped a pass. The play cost the Badgers four points (Andrew Endicott would hit a field goal) and it turned out to be the only incompletion on the day for the Badgers. But Fumagalli would more than make up for that drop later.

— Wisconsin had numerous opportunities to recover Western Michigan fumbles but the only one the Badgers could come up with was overturned by replay, as the runner’s elbow was down before the ball came out. On back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter the Broncos fumbled and recovered the ball. Also, earlier, Garret Dooley couldn’t come up with an interception after a tipped pass bounced off his hands. If the Badgers lost, these plays surely would have haunted them.

— The Badgers did a pretty good job on wide receiver Corey Davis, who is projected to be a first-round pick by some and owns the FBS record for receiving yards. He had six catches on 10 targets for 73 yards. Wisconsin seemed to have more trouble with Davis when he was in the slot — Leo Musso had trouble covering him on one reception, for example.

— Davis did record one touchdown on a play in which quarterback Zach Terrell was chased, scrambled and heaved one up to the end zone on a fourth-down play. Sojourn Shelton didn’t seem to know where the ball was — he wasn’t looking for it — and had his arms around Davis, who did spy the ball and made the catch. Earlier in the game, Western Michigan missed out on a score when Terrell overthrew a receiver in the end zone. On that play, Natrell Jamerson saw the ball, but then for whatever reason instead of making a play for it, turned to locate the receiver he was covering and got a bit lost and turned around in coverage. A good pass would have been a TD.

— Wisconsin struggled with big plays all year — tied for 74th in the nation coming into the game on plays of 20+ yards — but the Badgers had a number of big chunk plays against Western Michigan. The jet sweep got the Badgers three runs of 14+ yards. In total, four players had rushes of 20+ yards and three receivers had catches of 20+ yards.

— Both teams used timeouts in the third quarter, which if you weren’t aware from reading previous editions of Upon Further Review, I absolutely hate (short story: timeouts are gold). Wisconsin used one on defense and it paid off perhaps (we don’t know what would have happened if the play was ran) as the Badgers got pressure on Terrell and hit him as he threw on a third-down play, forcing a field goal. Western Michigan called a timeout on a fourth-and-4 — and then proceeded to punt. That has to rank as one of the worst third-quarter timeouts ever.

— Western Michigan tried to snap the ball quickly against Wisconsin on a third-down play in the third quarter. The Badgers seemed a little out of sorts as they had made some substitutions, but Ryan Connelly blew up a run for a 1-yard loss (leading the above-mentioned timeout and punt).

— Say what you want about Western Michigan but the Broncos were unbeaten and averaging 43.5 points and 496.7 yards per game. The Badgers limited them to a season low in points and yards (280).

DULY NOTED

— Western Michigan went for an onside kick with 3:27 left and down eight. Wisconsin had its hands team in, which includes wide receiver Jazz Peavy. The ball went to Peavy on a bounce, but he couldn’t corral it. Fortunately, he also knocked it out of bounds in the process.

— The 88-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter tied for second-longest scoring drive in a bowl game for the Badgers. (The record is 89 yards, done twice.)

— The 14 points in the first quarter tied for most by a Wisconsin team in that quarter in a bowl game. Also: 1996 Copper Bowl, 2012 (Oregon) Rose Bowl.

— Peavy’s 51-yard rush was the eighth longest run in a bowl game in Badgers history.

— Bradrick Shaw had become a part of the offense lately, but he did not see any action against Western Michigan. Head coach Paul Chryst said Shaw was injured during the week and fell behind as he missed prep work. Chryst said Shaw was available to play, but the team decided to ride out Corey Clement in the end. However, Wisconsin didn’t use Shaw in the first half, either, instead rediscovering Taiwan Deal, who had missed the previous two games and had just 10 carries since late September, for a couple of carries.

— Wisconsin had 25 first-down plays. The Badgers ran it on 22 of those occasions for 88 yards. UW was 2-for-2 passing for 35 yards plus were sacked once. Western Michigan also had 25 first-down plays, rushing 13 times for 65 yards and 6-for-12 passing for 67 yards.

— The announced attendance of 59,615 was the smallest at the Cotton Bowl since Jan. 1, 1998.

WHAT IT MEANT

Was this a lose-lose situation for Wisconsin? Maybe. But the Badgers showed they were motivate to play and hang the first loss on Western Michigan. In the end, Wisconsin didn’t embarrass itself and recorded what is probably its signature win of the season (and perhaps gave haters of non-Power 5 schools in a big bowl game a rallying cry to keep them out in the future).

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Western Michigan had no answer for tight end Troy Fumagalli. Even when the Broncos held him, as happened on the opening drive, Fumagalli made a nice one-handed catch. He was the Badgers’ go-to receiver and still the Broncos couldn’t stop him. Fumagalli finished with six catches for 83 yards, while reeling in a touchdown going high in the air in the back of the end zone. When Wisconsin was looking to finish off the game, it was Fumagalli getting wide open — somehow — for a 26-yard gain on a third-and-8 play with 2:42 left, helping the Badgers ice the game as Western Michigan never got the ball back. Fumagalli’s six receptions are tied for the fifth most by a Wisconsin player in a bowl game while his 83 yards receiving are tied for ninth most.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

Linebacker T.J. Edwards didn’t just have the momentum-changing play (see below), he also led Wisconsin in tackles with 10. There were several fine defensive performances, including from linebackers Vince Biegel (5 tackles, sack, forced fumble) and T.J. Watt (4 tackles, sack, forced fumble, PBU, QBH), but we give the nod to Edwards for sheer volume, plus the play of the day.

THAT MOMENT

In a close game, a turnover can be the key to victory or defeat. And that’s just what happened in the Cotton Bowl. Early in the fourth quarter and holding a seven-point lead, the Badgers had to punt and Anthony Lotti pinned Western Michigan at the 3. On the Broncos’ first play, T.J. Edwards made a nice interception over the middle on a Zach Terrell pass to put Wisconsin immediately in scoring position. Terrell clearly forced a pass as he tried to get the Broncos out from the shadow of their own end zone. The intended receiver, tight end Donnie Ernsberger, was not open as Leo Musso ran in front of him step-for-step. Plus, Edwards and Leon Jacobs had both dropped back into coverage and were stationed over the middle. Three plays later, Wisconsin scored to take a two-touchdown lead, giving the Badgers a more comfortable margin and, as it turned out, a much-needed score.

THIS NUMBER

92.9 — Combined completion percentage for Wisconsin quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, tying the best mark in Cotton Bowl history. It was also accomplished in 1946 by Texas against Missouri (and, like the Badgers, on 13-of-14 passing). It is also the highest completion percentage ever by a Big Ten team in any bowl game (min. 10 attempts).

THEY SAID IT

“It kind of left a bad taste in our mouth after the Big Ten championship game,” Edwards said. “We just wanted to get back out there and prove ourselves again.” — Linebacker T.J. Edwards

“We just needed a spark. Everyone was looking around to make a play and we had to look inside ourselves and I’m just glad to be able to spark it for us.” — Edwards on his interception.

“They started playing downhill, bringing an extra guy, bringing a safety down. And you can’t do both sometimes. So we took advantage of that, and that’s where we went.” — Tight end Troy Fumagalli

“”I tell you what, that tight end, he’s unbelievable.” — Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck on Fumagalli

WHAT’S NEXT

Wisconsin heads into the 2017 season with what looks to be a strong defense (even if T.J. Watt leaves) and questions on the offense, yet again (especially if Ryan Ramczyk leaves). A softer schedule than this past year should help, or at least raise expectations after this 11-win season.

Dave Heller is the author of the upcoming book Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow as well as Facing Ted Williams Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns