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Cotton Bowl Breakdown: Defenses

Wisconsin’s tough run defense might change up play-calling for P.J. Fleck and the Broncos.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Western Michigan Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As in every football game, defense will play a crucial role in determining Monday’s outcome. But the two teams clashing in Arlington at AT&T Stadium for the Cotton Bowl enter armed with upper-tier defenses in college football.

Wisconsin features one of the premier defenses in the nation, highlighted with the Big Ten Conference’s top linebacking corps. The Badger defense ranks seventh nationally in yards allowed per game, with specialization on stopping the run. Only Alabama owns a better rushing defense than Wisconsin, who yields 96.9 yards per game — one of three teams below the 100 mark.

The Badger defense faced a few setbacks in the 2016 season, losing star inside linebackers Jack Cichy and Chris Orr for the season. But Wisconsin runs deep at the linebacker positions, not allowing the injuries to spoil a phenomenal season.

T.J. Edwards, a former Western Michigan commit, stepped in at the inside linebacker and has been forceful since. After Wisconsin discovered him and Western Michigan fared 1-11 in 2013, Edwards switched his commitment to Wisconsin. Three years later, he leads one of the country’s best defenses in tackles with 79, after Cichy and Orr passed the baton. Edwards has also intercepted two passes and recorded three sacks this season.

Outside of Edwards, outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt complete the linebacking corps. Biegel also enters the Cotton Bowl with three sacks and has been used as another key run stopped for the defense in red and white.

On the opposite side of Biegel lines up T.J. Watt. If Watt sounds like a familiar name for a star defender, it is because T.J.’s brother and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt dominated from the defensive line at Wisconsin and continued his success for the Houston Texans in the NFL.

But Watt is more than an inherited name from his brother. T.J. leads the Badgers with 14.5 tackles for loss, along with 59 tackles this season. He also ranks first on Wisconsin with 10.5 sacks, good for first in the Big Ten. Watt is the toughest player to contain on the Badger defense, due to his pass-rushing abilities, knack for run-stopping, and ability to drop in coverage. But if offensive lines are too focused on Watt, Edwards and Biegel can quickly become problems for opposing teams.

For Western Michigan, Robert Spillane leads the Broncos’ front seven. Spillane has made crucial plays on defense all season long for Western Michigan, but no play was more meaningful than a game-sealing interception in the MAC Championship Game. In the Broncos’ toughest-fought game in the 2016 season, Spillane’s interception halted the Ohio Bobcats offense from driving to a conference-winning touchdown, allowing the Broncos to stampede to Texas for the Cotton Bowl.

Spillane has recorded 105 tackles from the inside linebacker position this year. The junior also adds two sacks and three interceptions to an impressive stat-line. Caleb Bailey and Asantay Brown add talent to Spillane behind the defensive front-four. The trio of linebackers has displayed efficient tackling for the MAC’s top defense of 2016.

Keion Adams remains key on the defensive line for the Broncos, with 7.5 sacks on the season. He has forced three fumbles for a Western Michigan team that ranks second nationally in turnover margin, but will have to line up in opposition to a relentless Wisconsin offensive line.

Both teams thrive off of winning the turnover battle. Wisconsin has forced 27, while Western Michigan has received 26 turnovers in its favor. The Badgers are third in the FBS with 21 interceptions, but face senior quarterback Zach Terrell — only three thrown on the year. Despite the tendency for the defenses to force offenses to cough the ball up, turnovers may be at a premium in a contest where the offenses continually avoid committing them.

But Wisconsin will aim to force Terrell to throw interceptions. Along with Watt’s blitzes, the defensive line must provide additional pressure on the efficient quarterback to swing the game in Wisconsin’s favor. Alec James and Chikwe Obasih will attack Western Michigan’s offensive line from the defensive end positions. The two combine for five sacks on the year, but will assist the linebackers in stopping Western Michigan’s running game.

But Wisconsin must make blanketing Corey Davis a priority. The senior receiver has annihilated Western Michigan’s schedule all season long with ability to shred off coverage downfield. Wisconsin will test Davis with cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal. These stars in Wisconsin’s secondary have produced for themselves defensively, combining for seven interceptions, with plenty of yards after the picks.

In the Broncos’ secondary, Wisconsin should take note of Darius Phillips. The playmaking cornerback returns kicks, but has seen plenty of yardage after interceptions. Phillips is first in the FBS with 263 return yards after his four interceptions. Three were returned for six Western Michigan points, contributing to the Broncos’ scoring totals from the defensive side of the ball.

Free safety Justin Tranquill has been a strong tackler all season long for Western Michigan, but the Broncos will be without strong safety Justin Ferguson. Ferguson, a senior, was carted off the field in the Toledo game with an injury, making the row the boat gesture with his hands while exiting the stadium. The team may seek inspiration from Ferguson, a player whose final moments in his college career demonstrated Fleck’s influence on his program.

Although Western Michigan features more weapons with skill position players on offense, Wisconsin’s defense will be the x-factor in this game. The Badger defense is equipped with one of the best linebacking groups in college football and the secondary forces interceptions with regularity.

Western Michigan must pierce through this defense, playing more similarly like it did against Toledo than Ohio. Wisconsin’s defense will be the most crucial of the four units in determining the winner on Monday. In the Badgers’ last game, the unit yielded the deep ball to Penn State frequently in the second half, contributing to a 38-31 loss. Western Michigan must test the defense with bombs down the field to overcome one of the nation’s strongest defenses for a chance to win the Cotton Bowl.