|Western Michigan after defeating Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game. The Broncos were unbeaten heading into the Cotton Bowl. Credit Carlos Osorio/Associated Press|
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) -- Troy Fumagalli had highlight catches for Wisconsin even before the big tight end's leaping 8-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and his 26-yard gain on third down that effectively wrapped up the Cotton Bowl victory.
The game's offensive MVP also had a nifty one-handed grab on third down with his left hand -- the one missing an index finger since right after his birth -- to extend the eighth-ranked Badgers' opening touchdown drive. There was another leaping two-handed catch in the first half of a 24-16 victory Monday that denied Western Michigan a perfect season.
"It's special," said Fumagalli, a junior. "It's a great feeling to come out on top."
BOX SCORE: WISCONSIN 24, WESTERN MICHIGAN 16
Fumagalli had seven passes thrown his way, and the 6-foot-6 junior caught six of them. The last two clinched the third consecutive bowl victory for the Big Ten runner-up Badgers (11-3).
After his TD catch between two defenders in the back of the end zone with 12:26 left made it 24-10, Western Michigan (13-1) took 9 minutes to score. Wisconsin was able to run out the clock after Fumagalli's big play on third-and-8.
"He's unbelievable," Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said.
With their "Row The Boat" mentality inspired by Fleck, the 12th-ranked Broncos (13-1) went from one win during his first season in Kalamazoo three years ago to the last FBS team other than No. 1 Alabama this season with a chance to be undefeated.
"Told them I was very proud of them, how much I love them, and the effort they gave," Fleck said about what he told his team on the sideline just before the end of the game. "We will continue to learn from this. We will embrace our past to create our future, and it just wasn't enough tonight."
The Badgers, who finished with 11 wins for the fourth time in seven seasons, were clearly bigger and stronger -- especially up front. Their offensive line averaged about three inches and 45 pounds more than the WMU defensive front.
Wisconsin set the tone early, with rushing touchdowns on its first two drives to lead 14-0 against the Group of Five team.
Fumagalli's TD came three plays after a rare interception by senior Zach Terrell, who finished with 33 touchdowns and four picks -- the last by Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards.
"It kind of left a bad taste in our mouth after the Big Ten championship game," Edwards said. "We just wanted to get back out there and prove ourselves again."
Terrell combined with All-America receiver Corey Davis for 51 career touchdowns, tying the FBS record on an 11-yarder on fourth down with 3:27 left . Even with cornerback Sojourn Shelton's arms wrapped around him in the back of the end zone, Davis broke free to make the catch.
"It doesn't matter if the defender is grabbing you or whatever it is. Go make a play on the ball if it's in the air, and go attack it," Davis said. "My four years at Western have been phenomenal. We've been through so much and I've learned so many lessons on the field, and off the field."
Western Michigan: The Broncos never backed down and Fleck has set a solid foundation for them to keep rowing forward, even with the loss of guys like Davis and Terrell, who were part of that one-win season in 2013. Western Michigan had only 280 total yards, 217 below its season average.
Wisconsin: The only losses by the Badgers were to Big Ten foes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, the last in the Big Ten title game. All also played in New Year's Six games. Freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who started nine games before a concussion forced him to miss the Big Ten title, was 2-of-2 passing with the TD pass to Fumagalli. Senior Bart Houston was 11 of 12 for 159 yards.
After five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, Corey Clement was held to 71 yards on 22 carries. But he put the Badgers ahead to stay with a 2-yard TD on the opening drive. ... Davis finished with six catches for 73 yards. His 5,285 career receiving yards are an FBS record.
Western Michigan knows it has to continue play Power Five teams to have chances for more New Year's Six games, and maybe eventually a playoff appearance. The Broncos open next season Sept. 2 at USC, a week before they play Michigan State, another Big Ten opponent.
Wisconsin always gets a chance to prove itself in the Big Ten. So the Badgers can ease into their season, and will Sept. 1 at home against Utah State.
Wisconsin starts strong, but WMU fights back in Cotton Bowl
Undefeated Western Michigan rowed its way into the Cotton Bowl, but that boat is in danger of sinking for the first time this season. Wisconsin’s power running game is set the tone early but the Big Ten runners-up own a 17-7 lead on the MAC champion in the Cotton Bowl at halftime after Western Michigan finally gained some confidence on offense.
Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell rolled out on a brilliantly called play and dodged one defender to score a touchdown.
Even Unbeaten Western Michigan Can’t Stop MAC’s Bowl Slide
The Motel 6 Cactus Bowl and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl are behind us. Those early bowls between unranked teams don’t seem too important, but they can sometimes tell us something. What have we learned this year?
The Mid-American Conference was overmatched this bowl season.
The MAC has developed a cult following, in part by playing some games on odd nights like Tuesdays and Wednesdays, giving college football junkies a chance to avoid withdrawal. That has spawned a tongue-in-cheek phrase for the conference’s games: “MACtion.”
This season seemed to be a sterling one for the MAC, with one member, Western Michigan, going undefeated in the regular season. The team was ranked 15th, secured the slot in the major bowls reserved for a minor conference team, and played Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Monday. It was the first major bowl appearance for the conference since Northern Illinois played in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 2013.
But things did not go well for MAC teams in the bowls. Their record was 0-6, the worst of any conference.
Toledo started it off by losing to the Sun Belt champion Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl. Central Michigan was hammered, 55-10, by Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.
Eastern Michigan lost to Old Dominion, which was playing in its first bowl game. At least Eastern Michigan got a trip to the Bahamas out of it. Ohio lost to Troy.
Miami of Ohio, playing a tough opponent, Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference, gave a good account of itself in the St. Petersburg Bowl before losing by a point on a blocked field-goal attempt.
These results were not even a huge surprise. The MAC team was the underdog in every game, yes, even to Old Dominion. Though the conference had a respectable 3-4 record in bowls last season, in general it has struggled against top competition. Over the last 10 seasons it is 14-24 in bowl games.
This all did not bode well for Western Michigan on Monday.
The Broncos had completed a perfect regular season, their first since 1941, sweeping their MAC games and adding road wins over two Big Ten teams, Northwestern and Illinois. Quarterback Zach Terrell was one of the most accurate passers in the game.
Some fans thought Western’s record deserved even more recognition than a top 15 spot and a Cotton Bowl berth. But the MAC’s poor bowl performance showed that Western’s conference wins were far less impressive than they might have seemed.
The Broncos were 7- to 8-point underdogs against Wisconsin. They were by far the best MAC team this season, but lost by 8 points, 24-16. After the poor performance of their conference mates, it was hardly a surprise.