The Cotton Bowl Classic, kicking off on January 2nd, is one of the most intriguing matchups in the non-playoff bowl games. It’s blue blood versus new blood when the 8th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers take on the 15th-ranked Western Michigan Broncos at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Fans of the Mid-American Conference have no other option given our geographic footprint than to be subjected to wall-to-wall B1G coverage and information, but we thought it best to go straight to the source for all the Badger news that’s fit to print by chatting with Jake Kocorowski from our SBNation (and outstanding) Wisconsin site Buckys5thQuarter.
HB: Usually the two-QB system doesn't work, but Wisconsin is doing OK with it. What do Hornibrook and Houston bring to the table respectively, and which one do you think gives Wisconsin the best chance to win the Cotton Bowl?
B5Q: The two quarterbacks offer some different intangibles, but not enough that drastically changes the offense Wisconsin runs. Alex Hornibrook took over for Bart Houston in the third game of the season against Georgia State and started up until the Big Ten Championship game where he didn't play due to a concussion. The southpaw provides an accurate deep ball and showed he was a hint more accurate overall than Houston. He did something that the redshirt senior in Houston couldn't against the Panthers, which was move the chains on third down and convert red zone opportunities into points.
Houston, though, worked his way back into the quarterback rotation on the road at Iowa as sort of a change of pace. The redshirt senior is more mobile than Hornibrook, as has been seen with his scrambles, some designed quarterback runs and even an extremely scarce hint of read option. He has a better arm by far, and he's improved throughout the season -- especially against Purdue and Minnesota.
In my opinion, Wisconsin will need both to win -- though I feel Houston gives them somewhat of an extra dimension with the slim threat of running the ball, and he did play better in the final stretch of games. Both cannot afford to throw interceptions like they did against Nebraska.
Corey Clement is the starting RB for a school that has a long list of greats at the position (Ron Dayne and Monte Ball for starters). While he never got to show his full potential it seems, he still has had a remarkable career. What exactly makes him so good?
Clement rushed for over 1,300 yards this season at only 4.5 yards per carry, but he did so against a still-rebuilding offensive line that's been decimated by injuries and re-acclimating to a pro-style offense that head coach Paul Chryst runs. That's admirable, especially with not getting off to a great start through the first five games. He is experienced but really bought into the team this season after a disastrous junior campaign a year ago where he only played in four games due to a sports hernia surgery and not playing in the last regular season game in 2015 due to an off the field incident last November.
Throughout the season, he's become more patient with his blockers, and it's shown since the Ohio State game -- rushing for over 100 yards in seven of the last eight contests. He still has the speed off the edge to gain significant yardage, as seen in his 68-yard touchdown run against the Nittany Lions. I don't know if his speed is as fast as it appeared in 2014 where he ran for 6.5 yards per carry and was about 50 yards away from 1,000, but he's durable in carrying the rock for 20-30 times a game. He just needs to not cough it up, as he fumbled a couple of times late in the season.
The Badgers have one of the more anemic offenses in the country (383 yds/game, 88th nationally), but have a great defense (303 yds allowed/game, 7th nationally) and the best run defense by a team not named 'Bama. Who/what makes this defense so stout?
The strength of this 3-4 defense really is the front seven, despite injuries to two starters at inside linebacker. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt (10.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss) and Vince Biegel (three sacks, five TFLs) will get the most recognition, but inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are instinctive but play their assignments well. Edwards leads the team in tackles for the second consecutive season, and Connelly -- a former walk-on -- has stepped up huge when both sophomore Chris Orr and redshirt junior Jack Cichy went down with season-ending injuries. I cannot speak highly enough of Connelly, who's made some key plays against LSU and Nebraska.
Those linebackers cannot make the plays they do unless their underrated defensive line eats up the blocks. Even with 340-pound nose guard Olive Sagapolu out for five games due to a broken right hand, Conor Sheehy, Alec James and Chikwe Obasih started and continued to create opportunities for the those backers.
Despite the horrendous outcome against Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game where they allowed Trace McSorley to pass for 384 yards and four touchdown passes, the secondary has been the pleasant surprise for the defense. Former walk-on/All-American/10-year NFL vet Jim Leonhard returned to his alma mater as defensive backs coach, and his cornerbacks and safeties combined for 16 of the team's 21 interceptions. Senior Sojourn Shelton will go down in Wisconsin's record books as one of the better corners to play in Madison, but it will be interesting to see how the nickelbacks in Lubern Figaro and Natrell Jamerson respond after being targeted and beaten by the Nittany Lions. Safeties Leo Musso and D'Cota Dixon are close on and off the field, combining for nine interceptions while creating some key plays in that defensive backfield.
Should this game come down to special teams play, how confident should Badger fans be in their kicker/punter/return men?
Wisconsin's special teams is their weakest phase of the game, and if it comes down to this aspect, it'll be an interesting game to say the least. Their standout kicker, Rafael Gaglianone, was seven of eight in field goal attempts before a back injury ended his season after the third game of the year. Senior Andrew Endicott, normally the team's kickoff specialist from 2013-15, took over and has converted 12-of-18 field goal attempts, but experienced struggles at Iowa, against Nebraska and at Northwestern.
Punting has been up and down. True freshman Anthony Lotti's improved over the course of the season, and has 24 punts inside the 20-yard line in 48 punts. Wisconsin still is 116th in the nation in net punting, however.
Kickoff returns haven't been too kind for the Badgers, ranking 86th in the nation in averaging 19.77 yards per attempt.
A bright spot has been the kickoff coverage game, where P.J. Rosowski has 47 touchbacks in 74 kickoffs.
Who wins, by how much, and why?
Western Michigan, with Zach Terrell, Corey Davis and their weapons in the backfield, will give Wisconsin some interesting looks and probably make some plays -- especially with what that secondary put on film against Penn State. The Badgers still have a bad taste in their mouth after that defensive meltdown a month ago, and leaders like Musso, Biegel and Shelton want to set the class record for wins (it would be 41 with a Cotton Bowl Classic victory) and end their careers on a high note.
The Broncos give up 151 yards on the ground, and Wisconsin's rushing game really got on track from the sixth game of the season (over 200 yards in six of its last eight games). A trio of potent backs in Clement, team captain Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman (and next great Badgers rusher) Bradrick Shaw have hurt opponents all in different ways this season. UW's offensive success is based on its rushing attack right now, so if the offense gets on track on the ground -- it'll be a long day for Western Michigan.
Both teams will take advantage of the big stage at AT&T Stadium and play each other tough, but I just don't see Wisconsin falling victim to an upset. There's a lot of pride in this departing class of seniors, and I think the defense redeems itself in Dallas. Wisconsin's elite front seven could cause fits and force Western Michigan into third and long situations. If the Badgers -- who are third in the nation in third-down defense (26.8 percent) -- hold the Broncos -- who are second in the nation in third-down conversions (54.2 percent) -- on that down, that'll give Wisconsin the edge in time of possession. UW leads the nation in that category, for what it's worth.
It should be a great game and excited to see what the Broncos do against the Badgers. I just think UW contains Terrell and Davis just enough, and Wisconsin's run game opens up the road to a win. I'll go Wisconsin 27, Western Michigan 23.
Big thanks to Jake and the Bucky’s Fifth Quarter crew for their insight and info. You can check out the Belt’s As to their Qs here.