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Grading Wisconsin’s Cotton Bowl win vs. Western Michigan

Troy Fumagalli came through big against the Broncos.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

For those of us hyped coming into the Cotton Bowl, this game was a fun matchup. The MAC-champion Western Michigan Broncos entered the game with a 15-game winning streak, second-most in the FBS, while the 10-win Wisconsin Badgers looked to avenge losing a 21-point lead in the Big Ten championship game to Penn State.

The game lived up to the hype, with the Badgers nabbing the high-profile win 24-16. Let’s take a look at the unit grades.

Offense: B

With redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook coming off of a head injury suffered against Minnesota in the final regular-season game, redshirt senior Bart Houston closed out his Wisconsin career with the start.

Wisconsin had a huge first quarter, putting up 166 yards and two touchdowns. The Badgers led off the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by gashing runs and a superb catch over the middle by tight end Troy Fumagalli. After a stop, the Badgers followed with an 88-yard drive capped by a one-yard Dare Ogunbowale touchdown run. The offense bogged down to start the second half as the Broncos held onto the ball for large swaths of the third quarter, but they did just enough in the fourth quarter to win.

Fumagalli (six receptions, 83 yards, one touchdown) was the story in the air. He caught a critical touchdown early in the fourth after the Badgers intercepted Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell, making up for a dropped touchdown late in the first half. His first-down catch with two minutes left in the fourth iced the game for the Badgers.

Defense: B

Coming into the game, we knew that something had to give as the Broncos were ranked sixth nationally in scoring offense, averaging 43.5 points per game, and the Badgers were fourth in scoring defense, giving up only 15.5 points per game. The challenge for Wisconsin was clearly 6’3, 213-pound receiver Corey Davis, a legitimate NFL prospect averaging over 1,400 yards receiving yards per season across the past three years.

Even though the Badgers were on their heels much of the game and Davis had 73 receiving yards and a touchdown, the defense came through against the high-octane Broncos.

After several stops to start the game, Western Michigan scored midway through the second quarter on a Terrell naked bootleg, capping a 16-play, 65-yard drive that ran a whopping 8:45 off the clock and featured both a fourth-down conversion and an overturned turnover call. The Broncos managed long scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters as well, the latter capped by a desperation touchdown heave by Terrell that was pulled in by Davis.

Wisconsin missed out on a number of turnovers as Western Michigan put the ball on the ground a staggering five times without a Badgers recovery. The one turnover mattered, though, as T.J. Edwards had a huge interception at the start of the four quarter deep in the Western Michigan zone that led to Fumagalli’s touchdown catch.

The defensive line did a good job of getting into the Western Michigan backfield and tipping passes, but struggled to bring Terrell down, particularly in space when he broke containment. Surprisingly, the Broncos had success with runs up the middle, as WMU backs moved the pile and had several big gains.

Special Teams: A-

Kicker Andrew Endicott made a 30-yard field goal at the end of the first to keep the game at two scores. Kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski landed four of five kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks. Anthony Lotti stuck a huge punt inside the five-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter after the Badgers had a Fumgalli first-down catch overturned by an offensive-pass interference penalty. The Badgers covered up an onside kick with three minutes left; otherwise, the return game was silent.

Coaching: B+

Wisconsin came out strong to start the game. There were large swaths of time where the offense bogged down or the defense was on its heels. The offensive play-calling was strong, though Wisconsin could have done more to open up the inside run in the second and third quarters. The defense looked uncharacteristically battered at times, but it limited Western Michigan to only 16 points. The Badgers were penalized five times for 35 yards, uncommonly high for them, but did not turn the ball over.

Overall: B+

You can’t grade for luck. In any other game, the Badgers would have recovered at least one of the fumbles, any one of which could have changed the complexion of the game.

Wisconsin was clearly the better team and never got rattled when Western Michigan played it tough. The Badgers won the turnover battle and out-gained the Broncos both on the ground (184 yards to 123) and in the air (178 yards to 157). If Fumagalli catches the touchdown he dropped in the first half and the Badgers recover at least one of the fumbles, then the result is likely a blowout instead of a one-score game. All in all, it was a fitting end to a pretty darned good season.