ARLINGTON, Texas -- Once Western Michigan finally grabbed the momentum in the fourth quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Monday, a trio of non-senior Badgers prevented P.J. Fleck’s crew from completing the comeback and finishing the season undefeated.
Wisconsin sophomore linebacker T.J. Edwards picked off Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell at the Western Michigan 12-yard line. Three plays later, Wisconsin freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook converted on third down by lofting a pass to junior tight end Troy Fumagalli, who -- despite his 250-pound frame -- gracefully reeled in the throw for what proved to be the game-clinching touchdown.
On Monday afternoon at AT&T Stadium, the Badgers kept the Big Ten’s teetering reputation from spilling into a full-on disaster with a 24-16 win over plucky Western Michigan. At the same time, Wisconsin’s youth movement set the stage for what figures to be a run at the Big Ten title in 2017.
The Big Ten’s best victory of the bowl season -- pending the result of Monday's tilt between Penn State and Southern California in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual -- didn’t come easy against the previously unbeaten MAC champion Broncos, who featured the dynamic duo of Terrell and consensus All-American wide receiver Corey Davis.
Western Michigan’s season began with Sylvester Stallone announcing via video message that walk-on linebacker Kasey Carson had earned a scholarship. And like Rocky Balboa, the Broncos -- whose motto "Row the Boat" became a rallying cry for the team this season -- kept getting up off the mat, despite giving up almost 45 pounds per man to Wisconsin’s massive offensive line.
Even after Fumagalli’s touchdown grab following Edwards' interception, Western Michigan came right back with a grinding 16-play touchdown drive, which ended with Davis hauling in Terrell’s fourth-down desperation heave in the back of the end zone.
Western Michigan, however, missed the extra point, and then couldn’t recover an onside kick. And on third-and-8 on Wisconsin's ensuing possession, Fumagalli snagged a 26-yard first-down catch down the middle of the field to salt away the win.
Though Ohio State and Michigan both lost in their bowls, the Buckeyes and Wolverines figure to be College Football Playoff contenders again in 2017. The same goes for Big Ten champion Penn State, which knocked off the Badgers in the title game.
But coming off this Cotton Bowl performance, Wisconsin showed why it has plans to return to the thick of the Big Ten race, as well.