The Wisconsin Badgers are not going to the College Football Playoff. They sure as heck are not going to the Rose Bowl. They do get a New Year’s Six bowl, but going from a likely matchup with USC to a matchup with the Mid-American Conference champions? That’s a disappointment. And that’s what makes Western Michigan so dangerous.
Sunday afternoon, the Badgers learned their bowl fate: a Cotton Bowl matchup with P.J. Fleck’s unbeaten Broncos.
The straw that stirs the drink for WMU’s high-powered offense is wide receiver Corey Davis. The 6’3 Davis went for 91 catches, 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns on the regular season, but the Broncos aren’t a one-man army in terms of people to throw to. Senior wide receiver Carrington Thompson can make a big play, and senior Michael Henry is a drive-extender as a possession receiver. It’s a talented array of options for senior quarterback Zach Terrell and a good explanation as to why he completed nearly 71 percent of his passes for 9.7 yards per attempt and threw 32 touchdowns against three interceptions, the fewest in college football among quarterbacks who started every game. Western Michigan is also one of the three teams in the FBS that completed over 70 percent of its passes.
The other part of why the Broncos’ passing game was a Swiss timepiece of efficiency was that they had a running game they could lean on. Junior running back Jarvion Franklin is 228 pounds of power with good hands, getting 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he’s the backup to sophomore running back Jamauri Bogan, who missed or was limited for seven games during the middle of the season, but he still managed to rush for 865 yards and eight touchdowns. WMU is one of the 10 teams in the country that scored 35 or more rushing touchdowns and one of the 40 teams that averaged over five yards per carry. Short story longer, UW is going to face an offense with balance, and at least one professional-level talent.
That said, the Badgers do have themselves a strong statistical edge in terms of the running game. The Broncos are 10th in the MAC in terms of rushing yards allowed per play at 4.71. Senior defensive lineman Keion Adams has 17 tackles for loss and junior linebacker Robert Spillane is active in the run game as well with 101 tackles (nine for loss), but there are holes to be had.
Through the air, the strength of Western Michigan is its ballhawking ways. The Broncos were a good MAC defense and 32nd overall in terms of yardage allowed at 201.8, and Adams also leads the team in sacks with 7.5 and hurries with 12. But their big strength against the passing game is their 15 interceptions. Junior defensive back Darius Phillips leads the team with four and returned three over 70 yards for touchdowns. Spillane also added three to go with his run-game skills. Wisconsin hasn’t thrown an interception since the Nebraska game, but this does warrant watching.
Phillips also added a kick and punt return for a touchdown, so he’s quite the dangerous player on special teams. Otherwise, there isn’t a major aspect that pops off the page for Western Michigan’s special teams... unless this is a close game and freshman place kicker Butch Hampton needs to put points on the board. He hasn’t had a kick in a close game since Week 1.
On paper, Western Michigan is a team that could have been bowl-eligible playing a Big Ten schedule. The Broncos are skilled enough that if the Badgers bounce back and play their best, the game likely won’t be over quickly. And if the Badgers sleepwalk? The Broncos could definitely pull the win.