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Cotton Bowl Breakdown: Offenses

Both teams feature strong running games, but one certain receiver could be an x-factor on offense in Arlington

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Western Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Chryst will lead Wisconsin’s signature pro style offense at AT&T Stadium to clash with P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan Broncos after nearly a month of respite for both competitors.

Wisconsin is famous for a strong running game behind a bulky, fortifying offensive line. College legends including Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, and Melvin Gordon have excelled in this scheme — a style of football that has become synonymous with Wisconsin football.

The Badgers feature a formidable two-back duo behind their front five. Senior halfback Corey Clement remains the focal point of Chryst’s offense, leading the team with a 1,304 yard, 14 touchdown performance in 2016. His fiery finish to the season included five consecutive 100 yard games, matching a season-high 164 yards in the Big Ten championship game.

Dare Ogunbowale, also in his senior season, has been Clement’s primary sidekick. He earned two 100 yard performances on the ground this season and has received several touches on offense in each contest this season. But even with two successful seniors, the Badgers are breaking out a third weapon in the backfield.

Bradrick Shaw is a freshman back from Birmingham, AL who saw increased production as the Badgers’ season progressed. In the second half of the season, Shaw earned a career-high 19 carries in a blowout victory over Illinois and two touchdowns at Purdue. Shaw even received more offensive touches than Ogunbowale in each of Wisconsin’s final five games.

Western Michigan also prefers mixing in two running backs in its high-octane offense. Rarely the case in 2016, both halfbacks will be healthy for the Cotton Bowl. Jamauri Bogan, the sophomore, started the year strong with four straight 100-yard games and five touchdowns in the timespan.

But Bogan was slowed by an ankle injury at Central Michigan before returning with a career-day against Toledo. Bogan finished the regular season rushing for a season-high 198 yards in a 55-point offensive performance against the nine-win Rockets. The smaller, five-foot-seven-inch running back provides the speed out of the Broncos’ backfield, while Jarvion Franklin establishes a power running game.

Franklin shined brightest in the middle of the season, where he possessed a six-game streak of 100-yard outings. Most notably, the junior shattered a program record at Akron when he rushed for an astounding 281 yards in a 41-0 shutout. Franklin’s touches have decreased since the return of Bogan — only nine touches in the MAC Championship Game. In the narrow victory over Ohio, neither running back saw daylight — both averaging under four yards per carry. Otherwise, the two-back system in Kalamazoo has been nearly unstoppable in the Broncos’ magical 13-0 season.

One commonality between the two northern opponents meeting in Dallas is powerful offensive lines. Wisconsin owns one of the top left tackles in the nation in Ryan Ramczyk. The former Division III lineman is in his junior year in Madison and first year as a starter. In a quick turn of events, he was selected as a First Team AP All-American and is a highly touted draft prospect, if deciding to declare for the NFL draft.

Center Michael Deiter and right guard Beau Benzschawel add prowess to Wisconsin’s great history of offensive linemen. The two have succeeded at creating running lanes for the halfback rotation through the core of defenses all season long.

But the Badgers don’t feature the only powerful offensive line in this game. Western Michigan averages 236.2 rushing yards per game compared to Wisconsin’s 204.5, a credit to the Broncos’ star offensive tackles. Chukwuma Okorafor lines up on the left, Taylor Moton on the right. The First Team All-MAC duo has elevated Western Michigan’s offense, allowing the Broncos to rely heavily on the running game in 2016 — a reliable, less-turnover-prone style of football. P.J. Fleck’s offense ran the ball 63.3 percent of the time — 603 total attempts in 2016.

Wisconsin’s play-calling proved similar, with 66.7 percent of plays ending up on the ground. But Western Michigan preferred the run despite having a solid, four-year starter at quarterback and one of the nation’s top receivers. With reliance on the run game and an accurate quarterback, the turnover was a play almost nonexistent from Fleck’s playbook in 2016.

Western Michigan leads the nation with only seven turnovers committed. Two of Zach Terrell’s three interceptions on the season transpired in the MAC Championship game. The other four turnovers were fumbles scattered scarcely throughout the course of the year. The Broncos are second to only Washington in turnover margin, boasting an impressive plus-19.

Wisconsin lost 16 turnovers but rank ninth in turnover margin with a plus-11. The Badgers are more turnover prone than Western Michigan’s but the Wisconsin defense more than makes up for the turnovers committed by its offensive unit.

Alex Hornibrook will return under center for the Badgers. The freshman broke out for Wisconsin early in the season after a dominant performance at Michigan State. He only completes 58.1 percent of passes, with an 8-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but does not star in a pass-heavy offense. In fact, Hornibrook has not thrown 20 passes in a single game since an October 15 loss to Ohio State. He did not start the Big Ten title game loss to Penn State after sitting with a concussion.

His counterpart, quarterback Bart Houston, may also see reps under center against Western Michigan. Houston started the season-opening victory over LSU and loss to Penn State — plenty of experience of playing in big games in 2016. Houston has fewer attempts but a much higher completion percentage at 65.9 percent, throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions.

The most accurate quarterback in the game will line up with the brown and gold. Zach Terrell owns the second-highest completion percentage in college football, connecting on 70.8 percent of passes. The experienced veteran threw for 3,000 yards for the third-straight season, one year after delivering Kalamazoo the program’s first bowl win. Terrell has thrown 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions in an incredibly accurate season.

When Western Michigan opens up the passing game, it can be deadly. Consensus First Team All-American wide receiver Corey Davis possesses a unique combination of strength and speed — ideal qualities for a receiver at any level. Davis is currently atop the all-time college football receiving yards list and has one more game in his career to extend the number. He is second to only Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson in receiving touchdowns in the 2016 season with 18 scores.

Davis anchors a steady receiving corps with Michael Henry and Carrington Thompson, the two other options Terrell will target frequently. The latter two combine for 99 receptions, compared to Davis’ 91 on the season.

Wisconsin’s top receiver is Jazz Peavy. The junior only reached 100 yards once in 2016 but remains the favorite target of Hornibrook and Houston. As part of a pro style offense, Wisconsin additionally relies on the tight end. Troy Fumagalli is second on the Badgers with 41 receptions and is often used as a sixth offensive lineman in Wisconsin’s rushing packages.

Western Michigan owns a considerable advantage in the passing game, but Wisconsin’s running backs and offensive line are enough to power an offense of a top-10 team in college football. Both teams will likely look to the ground on the majority of plays, but Fleck should be less hesitant target the air than Chryst will during the 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl, especially with the Terrell-to-Davis connection as part of his huddle.

Offenses will play a crucial role at the Cotton Bowl, especially with strong defenses on both sides. Given Wisconsin’s several low-scoring affairs, points should not be overwhelming the operator of the giant scoreboard at AT&T Stadium on Monday.