It’s a matchup of strength vs. strength Monday at AT&T Stadium, where the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers’ defense will take on the high-powered offense of the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Of course, we can’t forget the pairing pitting Wisconsin and its offense against an undefeated Western Michigan team that has a solid defensive unit. The Broncos’ defense allowed under 20 points per game (16th in the nation) and is 25th in the FBS in total defense, giving up only 353 yards per game. Not to mention, WMU is second in the nation heading into the contest in turnover margin at plus-19.
“They’re a very-disciplined defense,” redshirt senior quarterback Bart Houston said last week. “It’s kind of flipped from our team. Their offense gets all the glory and all the highlights, while our defense gets all the glory and all the highlights. They’re a disciplined defense, and they play that way, and that’s why they have so many takeaways.
“They got a couple of holes here and there, and we’re going to exploit that once the Cotton Bowl rolls around, but they’re disciplined.”
Western Michigan allows 151.2 yards per game on the ground, good for 46th in the nation. Since the bye week, Wisconsin has run for over 200 yards per contest in six of its eight games (seven, if you wouldn’t have that last offensive series against Northwestern).
Earlier this week, Hustle Belt’s Brandon Fitzsimons mentioned the strength of the Broncos’ defense comes within those playing inside the box. Defensive end Keion Adams leads the team in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (17), while defensive linemen Eric Assoua and Nathan Braster have combined for six sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Linebackers Robert Spillane (105 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions) and Asantay Brown (83 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) were second-team All-MAC selections.
Western Michigan held Big Ten opponents Northwestern and Illinois to a combined 126 yards rushing earlier this season (123 vs. NU, three vs. UI), but also gave up over 200 yards rushing five times (202 vs. Georgia Southern, 220 vs. Kent State, 227 vs. Toledo, 251 vs. Northern Illinois and 298 vs. Ball State).
“I think they kind of throw a lot of different blitzes at us and pressures, and their linebackers will fill the holes fast,” left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said on Friday when asked about what the Broncos throw at opponents, according to CollegePressBox.com. “So being able to communicate up front and pick those up, and if we don't pick it up, that's a tackle for a loss. If we do, that's a potential for a really big gain. So just communicating up front.”
The Badgers rushed for over 200 yards against four teams in the top-50 in the nation in run defense: 236 against Ohio State (13th), 210 against Minnesota (14th), 223 against Nebraska (43rd) and 241 against Penn State (49th). They also added over 160 yards against Iowa (48th) and 190 against Northwestern (31st).
Senior running back Corey Clement has run for over 100 yards in seven of the last eight games and finished the season with 1,304 yards on 4.5 yards per carry. The Badgers also boast senior Dare Ogunbowale as a threat as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield (484 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, four rushing touchdowns; 22 receptions 180 yards, one receiving touchdown), with the emergence of redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw (457 yards, 5.2, five) being a pleasant surprise for this year’s team.
Like many opponents this season, the Broncos could sell out against the run.
“For me, I just roll with the punches, whatever they give me and what I see. Whatever they present in front of me is what I got to work through,” Clement said last week.
“Whatever they give you, you just got to see how you can answer to it, and if you put eight men in the box, you’re doing something alright for this team to get ahead. Those guys upfront are definitely allowing eight men to be in the box for a reason because this run game is definitely picking up now.”
Mix in some jet sweeps from redshirt junior wide receiver Jazz Peavy, and Wisconsin has enough weapons to throw at Western Michigan’s defense to keep them off kilter.
That may open up more in the passing game, though that phase of the offense has not been as potent as many would like. Fitzsimons also mentioned safety play could be a concern for the Broncos, which could provide some opportunities over the middle in the second or third levels of the defense with tight end Troy Fumagalli or receivers Peavy or Robert Wheelwright.
Regardless, both teams control the ball very well, as Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession (35:21), while Western Michigan is fourth. UW’s rushing attack will be key to continuing that successful trend, both in yards and points on the board for the Badgers, but it will also keep that potent Broncos offensive attack sitting on the bench.