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Keys to a Cotton Bowl win: Wisconsin needs to contain Western Michigan on third down

Here’s one key to a Badgers win at the Cotton Bowl. We’ll preview a couple more leading up to Monday’s season finale.

Toledo v Western Michigan Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

It’s a matchup of strength vs. strength Monday at AT&T Stadium, where the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers will take on the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

UW (10-3) will look to rebound after a woeful defensive performance in the Big Ten Championship Game, against an undefeated WMU team looking to make an unprecedented splash by upsetting a Power Five program in a New Year’s Six bowl.

“We say we definitely had a bitter taste in our mouth from that game,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said on Wednesday, according to “We've been priding ourselves all year in showing up in big time games, and it sucks to not get the result we wanted in that game. But we have a great opportunity ahead of us in the Cotton Bowl against an undefeated opponent, and we’re not shying away from this game at all.

“We’re ready to show people what we can do.”

Contain Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell and Corey Davis

It’s the most talked about matchup for the Badgers, and one that was magnified significantly after allowing 384 yards and four touchdowns through the air to Trace McSorley and Penn State.

Wisconsin needs to contain Western Michigan’s combination of wide receiver Corey Davis and quarterback Zach Terrell.

Terrell completed 70.8 percent of his passes during the season for 3,376 yards with 32 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, two of those picks coming in the MAC Championship Game against Ohio.

The William V. Campbell Trophy award winner, given to the top scholar-athlete football player in the nation, has guided Western Michigan to 335 first downs, with 96 coming on third downs. The Broncos are second in the nation in moving the chains on that down.

“He just doesn’t turn the ball over,” senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said of Terrell last week. “A lot of those things that we’ve seen as far as playing other guys, guys that can threaten you with your feet and also make a lot of good passes. But at the same time, the difference from all of those other guys is he doesn’t turn the ball over. I think he has like two or three pics this whole year, and that says a lot about a guy especially the type of offense that they run, which is a pass-first offense.”

Terrell’s main target is Davis, the FBS all-time leader in receiving yards (5,212 and counting). He’s NFL-ready and has been voted a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, AFCA and FWAA this season after catching 91 passes for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns. His list of honors also includes second-team All-American selections from the Sporting News and Walter Camp Football Foundation.

“He’s a very complete—he’s really good in a lot of different ways,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said on Thursday. “He is physical. He’ll catch short and intermediate routes, break a tackle, and turn it into a big game. He can take you deep. He runs in breaking routes and outbreaking routes, catches a ball with his hands. He gets in and out of breaks. He can be strong out of his break and throw a guy. He does a lot of different things. He is probably the same way. He doesn’t always play the X or always play the Z or always play the slot. He moves around, and they do that to create match-ups and get him the ball.”

The Badgers will also have to contain wide receivers Michael Henry (61 receptions, 760 yards, four touchdowns) and Carrington Thompson (38, 605, six).

“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,” Hustle Belt’s Brandon Fitzsimons said earlier this week. “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.”

Wisconsin will also have to contain a Western Michigan rushing attack averaging 237 yards per game with running backs Jarvion Franklin (1,300 yards) and Jamauri Bogan (865), but the Broncos haven’t faced a front seven like they’ll see on Monday afternoon in Arlington.

To stop the Broncos from continuing to grind out the clock (WMU’s 34:22 average time of possession is fourth in the nation behind Wisconsin, Arkansas and Army), Shelton and the secondary need to contain Davis and not allow the huge chunk plays through the air as was uncharacteristically seen in Indianapolis earlier this month.

The players know Davis’s dynamic abilities and are awaiting the task of defending him.

“He can catch. Anywhere in his radius, he’s going to catch it. Whether you throw it high, throw it low, whatever it is, he’s a sure-handed dude,” Shelton said last Thursday. “It’s going to be fun facing him. Overall, we faced some really good receivers this year, and it’s just prepared us to face another good one.

“We’re excited as a unit to be able to take on this task, and it’s going to be fun.”

Key team stats

Third-down conversions:

Western Michigan offense: 96 for 177 (54.2 percent, second in the nation)

Wisconsin defense: 45 for 168 (26.8 percent allowed, third in the nation)

Red zone efficiency:

Western Michigan offense: 95.4 percent (third in nation)

Wisconsin defense: 77.1 percent (21st in nation)

Offense vs. Defense

Western Michigan total offense: 496.7 yards per game (14th)

Wisconsin total defense: 303 yards per game allowed (seventh)


Western Michigan scoring offense: 43.5 points per game (eighth in nation)

Wisconsin scoring defense: 15.5 points allowed per game (fourth)