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3 things we learned from Wisconsin’s Cotton Bowl win

There’s a whole lot of good to take from the Badgers’ win over Western Michigan.

To parody the great Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, “Sink. Sank. Sunk!”

The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers capsized the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos’ 2016 season in their 24-16 victory in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

It was a game both sides of the ball won, with an offense churning out explosive plays on the ground and through the air while having exceptional quarterback play and a tight end who turned into a Man-Bear-Pig.

Defensively, Wisconsin (11-3) stymied the Western Michigan (13-1) offense into season lows for points (16) and yards gained (280). Multiple times, the Broncos fumbled and seemed to be in Lady Luck’s favor in recovering them, but the Badgers came up with one critical takeaway that P.J. Fleck’s squad couldn’t overcome.

Three things we learned from Monday’s New Year’s Six bowl victory:

Troy Fumagalli is reaching “next great Wisconsin tight end” status

The redshirt junior was named the Cotton Bowl’s most valuable player on offense, and it was well deserved as he caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.

“I tell you what, that tight end, he’s unbelievable,” Fleck said when asked about the Wisconsin passing attack after the game, according to “I thought—we knew he was really good, right? But we don’t have some 6’3 safeties or anything really to contest with him. You see some of his catches were contested by Darius Phillips, and we put our best cover guy on him at different times.

“Schematically, created some mismatches here and there that we felt, ‘Hey, we got a shot to be able to do this.’ But when you have a 6’6 tight end that has range like that, you got a quarterback as accurate as they have, two of them, that’s what happens. There were multiple catches he had that were contested, and we just didn’t come down it with.”

It started with his one-handed catch on UW’s opening drive to move the chains on a third-and-13. Three plays later, senior running back Corey Clement found his way into the end zone to get the early advantage.

Though he dropped a sure touchdown at the end of the first half, he came back with key catches in the third quarter, then two critical receptions in the fourth quarter. His eight-yard touchdown from redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook atoned for his earlier mistake and extended the lead to 24-10.

On another third-and-long with under three minutes remaining in a one-score game, who ya gonna call?

Troy Fumagalli.

Redshirt senior Bart Houston found his tight end once again, this time for a 26-yard gain to essentially put the game out of reach.

Fumagalli ended the season leading the team in receptions with 47, and will be looked upon again in 2017 as a play-making tight end that can not just be relied upon to move the chains in short-yardage situations, but also to create some opportunities downfield. In Paul Chryst’s pro-style offense, Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks and Jacob Pedersen have all filled similar roles. Fumagalli could be the next in the line.

“I’ve been really fortunate. We’ve had a number of really good tight ends at Wisconsin, and they’re all different,” Chryst said. “But ‘Fum’ has got the ability to be a matchup problem for a number of teams or a number of individuals if they’re playing him man, and he’s big. He’s skilled. He runs well enough and has a great knack to separate.

“I think another thing that’s important is our quarterbacks trust him, so he’s got a big reception radius, and he’s done a really nice job this year of continuing to develop as a blocker. And he was big today. It was fun to see.”

Against an impressive offense, Wisconsin’s defense held serve and ended on the right foot

A lot of talk surrounded the matchup of the Badgers’ secondary against the NFL-caliber Corey Davis, the FBS all-time receiving yards leader. Wisconsin gave up nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns through the air to Penn State in early December, and Western Michigan came into the game averaging nearly 500 yards of offense and 43.5 points per game.

“It’s not that we were sad or anything like that,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said when asked about bouncing back from the Big Ten Championship game. “We just wanted to get back out there and prove ourselves again, and I think our prep throughout the whole week was good, and it was just time to prove ourselves. I’m glad we could do that.”

Justin Wilcox’s defense—ranked second in the nation in rushing defense, fourth in scoring defense, seventh in total defense and ninth in pass efficiency defense—limited the Broncos’ offense to only 16 points and 280 yards.

Wisconsin’s secondary held Davis to six catches for 73 yards, including that 11-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter to trim the UW lead to 24-16.

Quarterback Zach Terrell completed 16 of 28 passes for 157 yards with one touchdown pass and one rushing score, but also threw a critical interception deep in Broncos territory that set up the Badgers’ final touchdown.

“It was just a force on my part,” Terrell said. “We had kind of talked about a certain situation in which if the safety did one, we’re going to try to hit Donnie [Ernsberger] in the seam. And he made a good play. And the ball is the program.

“It’s something that coach Fleck has instilled in us since he first got here, and I didn’t take care of it. Costly error. Put the defense in a tough position, and Wisconsin did a tremendous job of capitalizing on it.”

Edwards made the play, and Wisconsin was in business in the red zone.

“I think their quarterback was doing a great job all game of reading our eyes and getting the ball out fast,” Edwards said. “We just needed a play to spark it, and I am just glad I was able to do that.”

The strength of this 2016 team, like its predecessor a year prior, was the defense. Its performance on Monday should wipe some of the sour, bitter taste out of the players’ mouths after that early December meltdown.

This was a special group of Wisconsin seniors

The 41st victory in a four-year period for Wisconsin is the most in school history. For a team to succeed, its seniors need to be in position to contribute heavily and often. Despite this Badgers iteration only having 13 seniors, many made an impact in a season where six or seven wins was a widespread outside prediction.

Running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale helped rejuvenate UW’s rushing attack (the latter doing his best a season prior as the lead back), outside linebacker Vince Biegel was the heart of the defense and harassed quarterbacks all year and defensive backs Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton solidified a secondary that was a major question mark heading into the 2016 season.

Wide receiver Robert Wheelwright combined with junior Jazz Peavy to provide a potent duo at that position, and tight end Eric Steffes was a major influence on those jet sweeps and helping the run game improve from 2015.

You can’t forget about the specialists, either. Long snapper Connor Udelhoven has been solid in that position since 2013, and kicker Andrew Endicott, despite some struggles midway through the year, performed admirably (13-of-19) in place of the injured Rafael Gaglianone.

The last one I want to mention is Houston. A once-heralded prospect, the California native endured coaching changes, a stint as a rugby-style punter and being a back-up for most of his career.

At the beginning of the 2016 season, he was named starter for the LSU game. He lost the starting gig after the Georgia State game, but worked his way back into the rotation for the Iowa game then on. He’s looked better since then, outside of the Nebraska game, and honestly has looked like the better quarterback in the UW platoon.

Houston finished his career going a nearly-perfect 11-of-12 for 159 yards against Western Michigan and, more importantly, as a winner.

Wisconsin will have a potent team on both sides of the ball next year, but the contributions of those that will exhaust their eligibility after this game cannot be overstated.