Redemption for Wisconsin’s defense.
A huge day for tight end Troy Fumagalli.
A signature moment for redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook
Another bowl victory for UW coach Paul Chryst.
A memorable send-off for a senior class that led the way through a remarkable 2016 season.
Eighth-ranked UW held Western Michigan’s high-powered offense in check for most of the day, Fumagalli and Hornibrook hooked up for a critical fourth-quarter touchdown pass and the Badgers held on for a 24-16 Cotton Bowl victory in front of an announced crowd of 59,615 Monday at AT&T Stadium.
UW finished 11-3 and ruined the dream of a perfect season for #15 Western Michigan, champion of the Mid-American Conference, which finished 13-1.
“As a team, we were doubted all year so that was motivation for us,” said fifth-year senior safety Leo Musso, who finished with nine tackles. “We played a lot of great teams and we knew we were a great team. We’ve been on a big stage before and I think that definitely helped out. They were a great team but our offense was rolling and it was great to come out here to such a great venue and get the W.”
Senior Bart Houston got the start over Hornibrook, who started all nine Big Ten regular-season games but missed the league title game (concussion).
Houston completed 11 of 12 passes for 159 yards. His only incompletion came on an end-zone drop by Fumagalli.
Fumagalli more than made up for the mistake, as he caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. He was named the outstanding offensive player.
That was an 8-yarder from Hornibrook, on third and 6. That play helped give UW a 24-10 lead with 12 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the game.
“He played unbelievably,” Houston said of Fumagalli. “You throw the ball up in his area code and he is going to come down with it. That is the type of guy you want on your team.”
Hornibrook played just two series but finished 2 of 2 for 19 yards and a touchdown.
Western Michigan entered the day averaging 43.5 points per game, 496.7 yards per game and with a plus-19 turnover margin.
UW’s defense held the Broncos to their lowest point total of the season, which had been 22; limited the Broncos to a season-low 280 yards; and forced the lone turnover of the game.
That was an interception by T.J. Edwards that gave UW the ball at the Broncos’ 12 and set up the Badgers’ final score. Edwards, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles, was named the outstanding defensive player.
“I think Western Michigan really took care of the ball and that is a credit to them,” said senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who had one sack, a forced fumble and five total tackles. “T.J. made a great play on the ball. I really think it turned the tide.”
The performance also helped UW’s defense make up for a second-half collapse against Penn State in the Big Ten title game. The Nittany Lions wiped out a 21-point deficit and secure a Rose Bowl berth with a 38-31 victory.
UW’s offense was sharp early and it was clear the Badgers had Western Michigan’s defense out-schemed and off-balance.
The Badgers put together scoring drives of 75 yards on 11 plays and 88 yards on seven plays to take a 14-0 lead with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
Corey Clement (22 carries, 71 yards) capped the 75-yard drive with a 2-yard run through a cavernous opening in the middle of the line with 8:52 left in the quarter. Dare Ogunbowale had a 24-yard reception and a 20-yard run to help move the ball to the 1 and then capped the second drive with a plunge into the end zone with 3:23 left in the quarter.
The Broncos closed within 17-7 by halftime but UW’s defense forced the critical turnover in the final quarter with the lead down to 17-10.
“We’ve been through a lot and the way we were able to do it today kind of sums up our season,” said redshirt junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who had a sack, a forced fumble, one pass broken up and finished with four tackles. “We started strong. We faced some adversity. And then we bounced back from adversity and got the win. It’s just a great way to finish the year.”
Quarterback Zach Terrell was limited to 16 of 28 for 157 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Wide receiver Corey Davis, who entered the day with 18 touchdown catches and an average of 109.8 receiving yards per game, finished with six catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.
UW cornerback Sojourn Shelton, making his program-record 51st start, shadowed Davis for most of the game. He surrendered the touchdown catch but for the most part played well.
“First and foremost, just want to give Wisconsin all the credit in the world,” Western Michigan coach P.J Fleck said. “What a football team. I tell you what, they are as good as advertised.”
The result left UW 2-0 in bowl games under Chryst, who is 21-6 in his two seasons as UW’s head coach.
“It means a ton,” he said of the victory. “This is the last time this team plays together and to be able to get a win against a good team, I’m really proud of them.”