Cotton Bowl preview: Wisconsin takes on 13-0 Western Michigan
It’s David vs. Goliath, as Big Ten West champ Wisconsin takes on MAC kingpin Western Michigan, the 13-0 “Group of 5” champion that has crashed the party and is in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Will college football’s Cinderella keep dancing or turn into a pumpkin? The Broncos already have beaten two Big Ten teams in 2016, notching victories at Northwestern and at Illinois in what has been the greatest season in school annals.
And check this out: WMU and Alabama are the lone unbeaten teams in FBS, making Bronco coach P.J. Fleck one of the nation’s hot young coaches. How long will he keep “rowing his boat” in Kalamazoo? Fleck has weaved his MAC magic with a dynamic Western Michigan offense that is No. 1 in the MAC in scoring (43.5 ppg).
But the team also plays good defense, leading the MAC in scoring defense (19.5 ppg) and takeaways (plus 19). DE Keion Adams is a force off the edge with a team-high 7.5 sacks and MAC best 17 TFLs. Bottom line: This is a very good MAC squad that probably could finish in the middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten.
The Badgers blew a 28-7 lead in the Big Ten title game, falling 38-31 to Penn State. Still, Wisconsin will make a 15th consecutive bowl, the longest active streak in the Big Ten and sixth longest in FBS. Wisconsin has won its last two bowl games, beating USC last season and Auburn to finish the 2014 season. Wisconsin and Western Michigan have met four times, with the Badgers owning a 3-1 mark vs. the Broncos.
The teams last met in 2000, when No. 4 Wisconsin scored a 19-7 win at Camp Randall Stadium. This is Wisconsin’s first-ever trip to the Cotton Bowl and just its third bowl game in the state of Texas, the last coming during the 2002 season. And you have to like the Badgers’ chances of winning, thanks to a powerful rushing game that averages 204.5 ypg and deft use of QBs Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston. Hornibrook didn’t play in the Big Ten title game after hurting his head in the previous game.
But it’s defense that makes Wisconsin special. Justin Wilcox replaced defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and has been a hit, helping the Badgers rank No. 3 in the Big Ten in total defense (303.0 ypg) and No. 1 vs. the run (96.9 ypg). The front seven is fierce, led by a standout group of linebackers. Can UW contain the explosive Western Michigan offense?
Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Western Michigan (13-0): 1 p.m. ET, Jan. 2, Arlington, Texas
Player on the spot: Wisconsin RB Corey Clement. He is one of the hottest backs in the nation and will need a big game if the Badgers want to prevail. He has rushed for over 100 yards in five consecutive games and seven of the last eight. Also credit a Wisconsin line has keeps getting better. Clement had 164 yards vs. Penn State in the Big Ten title game but got stuffed on his last carry on fourth-and-one as the Badgers were driving for the tying score. WMU allows 151.2 yards rushing per game.
Best individual matchup: Wisconsin CB Sojourn Shelton vs. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis. Shelton and his secondary mates got torched late by Penn State in the Big Ten title game, yielding 384 passing yards and four TD tosses. It was hard to watch. What is the confidence level of this group? They couldn’t cover and committed penalties vs. a boffo collection of Penn State wideouts. But this is a chance for the DBs to rebound as part of a defense that is No. 11 nationally vs. the pass. Shelton is one of the Big Ten’s top covermen, while Davis is one of the best wide receivers in the country who has set the FBS record for career receiving yards. He has caught 91 passes for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, forming a top pass-catch tandem with QB Zach Terrell, who has passed for 3,376 yards and 32 TDs. Davis will play on Sundays.
Best unit matchup: Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt vs. Western Michigan RB Jarvion Franklin. Watt is part of a stellar Badger linebacking corps that also includes Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards, among others. The Wisconsin linebackers need to keep Franklin in check, as the 228-pound junior has rushed for 1,300 yards in 2016 and has 3,586 in his career. The Badgers also need to keep an eye on WMU RB Jamauri Bogan.
Number: 21, interceptions for Wisconsin.
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