The Wisconsin Badgers (11-3) began 2017 in winning fashion, beating the Western Michigan Broncos (13-1) 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Monday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston threw for only 159 yards but was an efficient 11-of-12 passing.
Corey Davis closed out his college career well, making six receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown to finish as Western Michigan's leading receiver.
Beyond Davis, Zach Terrell struggled to consistently find open targets, finishing 16-of-28 for 157 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
It looked as though Wisconsin was on its way to a comfortable victory when the Badgers jumped ahead 14-0 in the first quarter. Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale each scored on touchdown runs in the opening frame.
ESPN's John Buccigross thought Wisconsin owned an advantage at the point of attack:
Clement's touchdown particularly highlighted how well the Badgers offensive line blocked early in the game. ESPN.com's Brian Bennett showed that the senior running back essentially had a red carpet into the end zone:
Terrell breathed life into Western Michigan with a two-yard touchdown run with 5:27 left in the first half. The senior quarterback faked out nearly the entire Wisconsin defense on a designed bootleg, and he left Badgers linebacker Garret Dooley with a pair of broken ankles en route to the end zone.
The Mid-American Conference shared a replay of Terrell's run:
SB Nation's Hustle Belt figured that no matter what, the Broncos were already having a better time than the Ohio State Buckeyes:
Andrew Endicott put Wisconsin up by two scores, 17-7, on a 30-yard field goal with 18 seconds until halftime.
Butch Hampton responded in kind with a 27-yard field goal to bring the Broncos to within a touchdown with 10 minutes to play in the third quarter.
A costly turnover put a dent in Western Michigan's comeback attempt, though. Backed up at his own 3-yard line, Terrell threw an interception to Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards. It was an uncharacteristically bad pass from Terrell, who had three interceptions in his team's first 13 games.
CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli thought Terrell did a poor job of reading the field prior to the throw:
Wisconsin capitalized on the interception, with Troy Fumagalli catching an eight-yard pass from Alex Hornibrook in the back of the end zone. The Cotton Bowl's official Twitter account shared a field-level view of the junior tight end's impressive grab:
KCMO's Mike Wickett thought Fumagalli, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown, made a big impression on NFL scouts:
Terrell kept Western Michigan's hopes alive with a heave into the end zone that Davis brought down to make it a 24-16 game with 3:27 remaining.
On 4th-and-4 from the Wisconsin 11-yard line, the Badgers pass rush flushed Terrell out of the pocket. With no other option, he lofted a pass for Davis. The height of the pass allowed the senior wide receiver to outwrestle Sojourn Shelton for the ball.
CBS Sports CFB showed how Davis positioned himself to haul in the reception:
Western Michigan failed to recover the ensuing onside kick and couldn't prevent the Wisconsin offense from running out the clock, allowing the Badgers to notch their third straight bowl victory.
After winning double-digit games in back-to-back seasons, Wisconsin should be a Big Ten contender again in 2017.
The schedule favors the Badgers, who will avoid Ohio State and Michigan State and play Michigan and Iowa at home. Hornibrook should be better in his sophomore season, and on the defensive side of the ball, Wisconsin graduates only three starters, so a third consecutive 10-win campaign should be within reach.
For Western Michigan, the outlook isn't as rosy. College Football Talk's Kevin McGuire noted the Broncos will be tested right out of the gate:
Retaining head coach P.J. Fleck was a major boost for the Broncos program and ensures the team won't suffer a significant decline. Still, it's doubtful Western Michigan will be able to repeat the success it enjoyed in 2016.
Before committing to Wisconsin and making a pivotal interception in the Cotton Bowl, Edwards was set to join Western Michigan.
"Go figure the guy who was committed to us picks it," Fleck said after the game, per Omnisport's Ron Clements (h/t Sporting News). "That's why we recruited him. There's a reason why we recruited him, and you saw it."
Fleck didn't let the result sour what was an otherwise excellent season for the Broncos, per the Associated Press (via FoxSports.com): "[I] told them I was very proud of them, how much I love them, and the effort they gave. We will continue to learn from this. We will embrace our past to create our future, and it just wasn’t enough tonight."
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst praised Fumagalli's work Monday, per Land of 10's Wayne Staats:
I've been fortunate, we've had a number of really good tight ends. They're all different. But Fum has the ability to be a matchup problem for a number of teams or individuals. He's big, he's skilled. He has a great knack to separate. Our quarterbacks trust him. He's got a big reception radius. He was big today. It was fun to see.
"We didn't play a perfect game," Chryst said of his team. "But we did a lot of things that gave us a chance."