We are now one day away from the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers taking on the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos in the Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium.
B5Q has highlighted two keys already for Wisconsin to hand undefeated Western Michigan its first loss of the season in stopping the Broncos’ passing attack, most notably on third downs, and continuing to run that dang ball like the Badgers have since the bye week.
Wisconsin also needs to not just run the dang ball, but hold on to the dang ball—and somehow find a way to create takeaways against the best team in the nation in turnover margin (as of Sunday, thanks to Washington’s effort against Alabama).
Lastly, the Badgers need a strong effort from their special teams phase of the game, one that’s been inconsistent at times and will face a dynamic returner in Western Michigan’s Darius Phillips.
Win the turnover battle
Phillips, besides his two special-teams touchdowns this season, also has returned three interceptions for scores this season on the way to first-team All-MAC honors.
It is cliché to say winning the turnover margin is crucial, but against Western Michigan (15 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries), Wisconsin will have to avoid costly mistakes in coughing up the ball through the air or on the ground.
On the other side, Western Michigan was the last program in the FBS to commit a turnover this season, coming in its seventh game of the season. Quarterback Zach Terrell is a model of offensive efficiency, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 32 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Two of those picks came against Ohio in the MAC championship game.
“I think you just take it as a challenge because they’ve done such a good job of protecting the ball,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said on Thursday, according to CollegePressBox.com. “So I think it’s almost a challenge to try to make those things happen because if you have turnovers, it gives your offense a better chance to do what they do.
“It’s been impressive what they’ve done holding onto the ball, and the quarterback being smart with the ball. So it’s something that we really emphasize this week because we know we have to do that to win.”
Pressure from outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, along with inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, will be key for the Badgers to make Terrell uncomfortable.
“They blitz—the most impressive thing about coach Chryst’s team in my opinion is the way they blitz,” Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said during the Cotton Bowl head coaches’ press conference on Sunday.
“It’s not just the blitz schemes. Everybody has blitz schemes. It’s how they blitz. They don’t care if there’s anybody in their way, they’re going to go through it. It’s amazing. That was the first thing our running back saw on film is, ‘Wow, they really bring it.’”
Wisconsin has forced 21 interceptions this season, now tied for third in the nation heading into the Cotton Bowl. The Badgers’ defense will need all three levels of the defense to play in sync to create some opportunities against the Broncos.
“A lot of high effort, I guess, plays,” safety Leo Musso said on Dec. 29 when asked about what’s made this team create more takeaways. “A lot of smart guys, and I think everybody working together and being on the same page. Obviously, a big credit of it goes up to the up front for our interceptions. Everybody has got interceptions this year. The big credit goes to the entire front seven because they’re getting pressure on that quarterback. And just guys being in the right spot at the right time.”
Avoid special teams blunders
Phillips earned not just first-team All-MAC honors on defense, but also the conference’s special teams player of the year award for the 2016 season. The 5’10, 191-pound defensive back scored five non-offensive touchdowns this season alone (three pick-sixes, along with one punt return and one kickoff return).
Phillips has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, though in 2016 he’s averaging his lowest average per attempt in three years (22.7 compared to 26.4 and 23.2 in 2014 and 2015, respectively), but he did return a 100-yard kick for a score against Georgia Southern.
Forty-seven of P.J. Rosowski’s 74 kickoffs have found their way into the end zone as touchbacks this season. For the season, Wisconsin has allowed only 20.14 yards per attempt (53rd in nation) but has given up large returns against Iowa and Minnesota.
UW will also have to hold the Detroit native in the punt return game, as Phillips added that to his résumé this season. He averaged an impressive 12.3 yards per attempt with a 66-yard touchdown against NC Central.
Wisconsin is 62nd in the nation in punt return defense (7.59 yards per return) but is only 118th in net punting (34.3 yards per punt). If this game is close, true freshman Anthony Lotti will have to continue what he’s been doing this last half of the year in placing the ball deep in opponents’ territory (24 of his 48 punts overall have been downed inside the 20-yard line).
Senior Andrew Endicott is 12-of-18 on field goals this season. The former walk-on will be called upon if Wisconsin can’t get the ball across the goal line.