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Cotton Bowl Q&A: What to expect from Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan

Hustle Belt previews the Broncos.

The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers face the undefeated, No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 2.

It will be just about a month after UW’s disappointing 38-31 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game, when the Badgers built a 21-point lead only to succumb to an aerial attack led by quarterback Trace McSorley.

Wisconsin’s defense will have to face another potent offense that features a quarterback in Zack Terrell who threw just three interceptions all season and a wide receiver in Corey Davis who caught 91 passes in 2016 and is the FBS all-time leader in receiving yards.

Here to preview the Broncos is Brandon Fitzsimons from Hustle Belt, our SB Nation cousins who cover the MAC conference.

Lots of areas stand out when looking at Western Michigan. An undefeated team that beat two Big Ten opponents, an offense that ranks second in the FBS in third-down conversions, third in red-zone efficiency and eighth in scoring, and a team that has a turnover margin of plus-19 (second in the nation) and allows under 20 points per game (14th). As you’ve covered this program, is there one particular area of this year’s team that’s the most impressive to you?

I want to say the defense, because I’m used to seeing pretty awful defenses through the years at Western Michigan. However, the one true answer is the offense. Outside of the MAC championship, the Broncos have shown an innate ability to control the game with a healthy diet of ball control. Whether it’s running the ball down opponents’ throats, not turning the ball over or just giving it to Corey Davis and letting him do his thing, WMU has consistently controlled the tempo of its games, with the offense putting up seven-plus-minute drives regularly, often ending with a touchdown. It’s the one unit that is just so impressive, but one I’ve been conditioned to take for granted (thanks, Bill Cubit).

Seems like there will be a strength vs. strength battle in the Cotton Bowl with Western Michigan’s offense (almost 497 yards per game) against Wisconsin’s defense (seventh-best in the nation, allowing 303 yards per contest). Talking about the backs first, what makes quarterback Zack Terrell such a dynamic player, and what have the two running backs provided to a pretty balanced offense (237 yards rushing, nearly 260 passing)?

Terrell is four-year starter, with the early part of his freshman season the only exception (split time with Tyler Van Tubbergen). That said, he knows this offense inside and out. He knows all of his reads, and is (usually) smart enough to know which throws he can and can’t make, or when he needs to tuck it and run. He’s fearless. Behind him are two solid running backs. Jarvion Franklin was the 2014 MAC Player of the Year as a freshman, and had a slight setback last year to make way for Jamauri Bogan. Bogan won the 2015 MAC Freshman of the Year award while putting up big numbers in MAC play. Honestly, it’s sort of a thunder-and-lightning combo they have, with Franklin being the power to Bogan’s finesse. Both are very good at running the ball, and if one is having an off day, the other usually steps up to fill his duties.

Wide receiver Corey Davis is the FBS all-time leader in receiving yards. What makes him such a dynamic pass catcher, and how do the Broncos utilize Davis with other players like Michael Henry and Carrington Thompson in their passing attack?

Where do I start with Davis? He’s a freak. He has incredible quickness and decent speed, but his route running and catching ability is where he makes his (future) money. Davis can be used as a deep threat, a possession receiver or even a bubble option. He makes plays all over the field, and even is a solid run blocker when need be.

As for Thompson and Henry, they have more defined roles. Henry has solid speed and is often used on quick-hitters and bubble screens, letting the play either come quickly or after the catch, but rarely both. Thompson is a lanky possession threat. He doesn’t have the best hands, but can make incredible catches to move the chains. His speed won’t wow you, but when Davis sees double coverage, Thompson is a reliable second option to have.

Defensively, Western Michigan allows 353 yards per game (25th in the nation in total defense). Who and what’s made the defense so successful? Does it start with defensive end Keion Adams (7.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss) and linebacker Robert Spillane (105 tackles, nine TFLs and three interceptions)?

This is a bend-but-don’t-break defense. The secondary is young, and safety play will be a big concern with usual starter Justin Ferguson out for the season. In steps Davontae Ginwright. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, he’s the one trying to the throw the ball back on the fumble toward the end of this video. Alongside him is Justin Tranquill. The redshirt freshman is somewhat solid, but his routes to the ball are often shaky. So with that said, yes, the success of this defense comes from the strength of the box. The defensive line has been bullish all season, and the linebackers are very good at controlling the middle of the field, whether that’s defending the pass or stopping the run. If they have a bad day, WMU does not win.

Darius Phillips has intercepted four passes, three of which have been returned for touchdowns. What does Phillips bring to the secondary and also on special teams, where he was named the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year?

Speed. Lots and lots of speed. He’ll make a boneheaded play every now and then, but when he has the ball, all he wants to do is score. Catching a punt with a tackler coming right at him? He’ll return it. Punt inside the 10? He might grab it and try to make something happen. And if he gets an interception, that’s plenty of room for him to make things happen. He’s just so fast.

On both offense and defense, where do you feel Western Michigan can exploit Wisconsin, but also how can the Badgers contain the Broncos? Do you believe Wisconsin can run the ball on a defense that’s given up over 151 yards per game on the ground?

The obvious answer is probably the secondary. When you have a Corey Davis, you already have a sizable advantage. Now, throw in the Big Ten championship performance by the Badgers’ secondary, and you have a recipe for a big day by Terrell. Conversely, Hornibrook or Houston could do the same against the Broncos, especially over the middle against the safeties. We could see a lot of points via the air.

As for running the ball, it’ll be interesting. Wisconsin has probably the best o-line the Broncos have seen all season, and Corey Clement is very good at what he does. Tackling was an issue against Northwestern, and I’m praying the same doesn’t happen against a better Badgers team.

What are your keys to the game, and your prediction for the Cotton Bowl?

For the Broncos: Control the clock. If they can shorten the game, maybe they can force the Badgers into rushing a bit on offense and get a turnover or two. If not, the Broncos haven’t played catch-up in some time, and I would hate to see them have to start on the biggest stage in program history.

For the Badgers: Make the secondary beat you. Whether that’s airing it out or getting to the second/third level on the run, you have to make Ginwright and Tranquill make plays.

PREDICTION: P.J. Fleck finishes the magical season with a 31-27 win over Wisconsin and drops a “We Want Bama” as he holds the Cotton Bowl trophy over his head.