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Booth with a View: ESPN’s Brock Huard previews the 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic

ESPN’s Brock Huard stops by the Belt and talks positional match-ups, the uniqueness of covering a New Year’s Six bowl and if a primetime P5-G5 game is a difficult sell.

LSU v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Have you ever watched an ESPN game and noted where the camera angles are, which cuts are used, who the broadcast team is, what the storylines are... you know, things of that nature?

Maybe not.

But these sorts of things are key to the production quality of a game. Technically speaking, a football game is somewhat similar to a cinematic masterpiece in terms of preparation and the execution.

We talked to ESPN’s Brock Huard, who will be on the call for the Cotton Bowl Classic between WMU and Wisconsin, about what in-game stories the production group seeks to highlight, the challenges that he faces in presenting the game and take a peek behind the curtain to see how he and his crew in Dallas prepared for the big day.

What’s the impression that you got from both coaches coming in? What are they looking forward to?

Huard: I think both of these teams know exactly what they are and more importantly, they know what they’re not. Because of that, I think we’ll have a pretty compelling story to tell. I asked [Wisconsin coach] Paul Chryst yesterday about if anybody on his roster has jumped out and taken the next step and he said “no one’s gone backwards.” That was really evident of the point that they know exactly what they’re capable of, the schemes they can play within. They’re very comfortable and unapologetic about it, about running the ball and playing great defense.

On the other side, {Western Michigan coach] PJ Fleck’s got a group of guys that feel really good about themselves and what they are capable of doing. It’s like he said, it’s not about what they’re gonna do tomorrow, it’s how they’re gonna go about it. They seem thrilled to be going after it.

Is there anything Paul Chryst is looking forward to in terms of on-the-field match-ups with Western Michigan?

Huard: I think it’s getting Penn State [winning the Big Ten Championship] out of their minds and making those plays they didn’t to close that game.

I asked the WMU coaches “what happened when you put on that Penn State tape and what jumped out to you?” They said “well, there were three 50-50 balls and Penn State made the play on every one of them.”

I asked Chryst today if he ultimately absorbed and flushed out that game and he said, “yeah, I did it the next day. There were three 50-50 balls and the Nittany Lions made the play all of them.” That was kind of telling to get the same exact commentary out of both teams.

That to me is what this game is about for Paul Chryst, for his seniors, those guys that wanted to win the Big Ten and wanted to play in the Rose Bowl, to be able to flush that memory out and the inability to close on Penn State and get [that opportunity] tomorrow.

The New Year’s Six bowl is usually a pretty big deal. As a commentator coming into this game, what do you do in particular for the folks coming in and watching this game and maybe seeing Western Michigan for the first time?

Huard: That’s a good question. I think it helps that GameDay went to Kalamazoo, to be honest with you. I think that was kind of an introduction and as much as PJ has been out there and gone viral with what he says in the pregame and the postgame, I think the rabid or consummate college football fan has been introduced to it. But for sure, for the casual fan that’s gonna sit at home tomorrow and watch college football and see this story, they’re really compelling.

The best player on the field tomorrow will be from Western Michigan and that’s Corey Davis. He may just be the best pro along with Ryan Ramczyk, the left tackle for Wisconsin. Those are first-round, top-notch NFL players and obviously, Terrell at WMU is an excellent player.

They’ve won their last 15 and have won 13 straight this season and it doesn’t matter what conference you’re in, whether it’s the Mountain West or the MAC, whatever conference you’re in, that’s a compelling story to be undefeated.

It’s like the NCAA Tournament in basketball; there’s always a David and Goliath story, a no-name and an underdog. Western Michigan knows they’re the underdogs, they’re going to be hyper-aggressive. I think we’re going to see fakes, lots of fourth-down opportunities... they can’t wait to take their team and their 15 consecutive wins on the road to Dallas.

Is preparing for this game a little bit different for yourself and the crew than a regular game when you’re setting up? If so, how different?

Huard: Oh yeah, there’s more. Instead of eight cameras, we have about 15 cameras. Instead of a week to prepare, we have about a month. [Our crew] had the Holiday Bowl as well, but we got a month, you know, kind of like these coaches. They have extra time to put in their plays and schemes and formations... we do have extra time to tell stories and really be able to document them.

In a normal open, we get about four minutes. [For the Cotton Bowl], we’ll have about 12 minutes. That ability, where you asked earlier about painting the picture and telling the country and sharing that story, we’ll have ample time to do so.

From a commenting aspect, what are you most excited for in the Cotton Bowl?

Huard: For me, it’s the football. It always is the ball. What I’ll have and what we’ll have, with the extra cameras and the SkyCam that sits right behind that quarterback and is on those wires and follows everybody.

To watch Wisconsin is this kind of a thing of beauty from a football perspective— not kind of, it is— and I said unapologetic, I’ll probably say that two or three times tomorrow, they don’t care. They’ll line it up and find really creative ways to really run and attack in their scheme and it will be fun to document. I think they’re 6’6”, 320 lbs. [on average] up front, while Western Michigan is 6’3”, 270 lbs. and [Wisconsin]’ll want to utilize that 50 pound advantage with their strength and their power in that scheme. For Western Michigan, who know they’re undersized, they know they have to use great quickness and speed and we’ll see if they can do so.

There’s also this tremendous one-on-one chess match between Wisconsin defense that loves to disguise and loves to bluff and Western Michigan that likewise likes to get that perfect play and are one of teams that are “look at me, look at the sidelines” to get to the perfect play and the back-and-forth and that little dance, that football chess match will be awesome to watch.

What’s the one football matchup (positional, individual or otherwise) that you’re personally looking forward to on the field?

Huard: There’s a couple There’s three that jump out at me right away.

The first is Corey Davis. Anytime you’re the most prolific in the history of college football at something, you’re a special talent. Corey can play in the slot, he can play X, he can play Z. He’s gonna be moved all over the field; I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in the backfield at times as they try to find creative ways to get him his opportunities. That match-up is really player vs. the entire scheme of Wisconsin, although I do expect [cornerback Sojourn] Shelton to follow him on the outside when he’s available.

The second is Ramczyk, the left tackle for Wisconsin. If he was not having hip surgery, he’d be right up there as one of the first tackles taken. He has gotten better and better and he is phenomenal to watch. He’s actually moving people; not many lineman in college football today actually move people. He’s capable; not just capable, but tremendous in doing it. Watching the left tackle will be fun.

Western Michigan is also here because of their two tackles. Both of those guys could play in the Big Ten just about anywhere and they will be matched up against [TJ] Watt and [Vince] Biegel and you’re looking at some NFL guys. Watt’s gonna be an NFL guy, [Willie] Moton’s gonna be an NFL guy, and the other guys will get in the NFL, potentially in the late rounds. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m kind of excited. Can’t wait to kick off.

What’s the atmosphere like down there in Arlington? How is the energy?

Huard: We were at the Sugar Bowl a year ago with Old Miss, who hadn’t been there since Archie Manning and that was off-the-hook. Sold out, Oklahoma State, you could tell. We were at the Peach Bowl the year before. TCU, Ole Miss was at that one as well. That was sold out. Both teams were ramped up and ready to go.

This one is a little bit different.

Obviously, Western Michigan is not as big a school, it doesn’t have as big a following as some of the Power Five schools. Wisconsin has a rabid fan base, but they’re not gonna bring 50,000 fans down here to Dallas.

I would say from that level of covering two other New Year’s Six bowls, I don’t feel that kind of energy of the others. I don’t know if there’s going to be 50,000 people, maybe, maybe 60,000, there’s not gonna be more than that. It’s not gonna be a full stadium.

But the folks that are gonna be there, especially the Western Michigan folks, are. We’ve seen with Boise State, with these other G5 teams in the past, they can’t wait to get into the dance and show what they’re capable of doing. I expect that energy in the building to be as good as expected, but it won’t be a sell-out.

Because of the fact that this game has a Group of Five team that doesn’t have a lot of name power until very recently in Western Michigan and a Power Five team in Wisconsin that some detractors say is “too boring,” do you think the 2017 Cotton Bowl is a hard sell?

Huard: I think it’s a hard sell for the local folks that have to sell the game to local people. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I think that it’s a great challenge in that way.

It’s not a hard sell for these two teams and ultimately, I think it’s a given that it’s a bowl game. That’s a critical component; do both teams really want to play, do they really wanna show up? Are they tremendously motivated?

I think in this case, that answer is a definitive yes for Western Michigan. I referenced that basketball tournament earlier. I know as a guy that watches it that I don’t watch every college football game, but I watch the tournament. When you do, you kinda latch on to those stories and underdog teams and PJ Fleck is a story. This program is a story and where they could possibly eventually go and what this program could do: win their sixteenth game in a row against a team that’s been a strong kind of powerhouse, Power Five team in Wisconsin.

It’s not a hard sell for me, I don’t think it will be a real hard sell on TV once it gets going, but yeah. I think this stadium, the buzz for the Rose Bowl that follows, the Playoff games that happened Saturday... it may be a little harder story to tell in that way.

What is going to be the best thing to cover about this bowl for you personally?

Huard: It’s gonna be whether or not PJ Fleck can get Western Michigan that marquee win. They beat Northwestern. They beat Illinois, but can they get a marquee win and get to 14 and 0 and really send off their seniors and guys that really ignited this program, the quarterback, first and foremost, the receiver Corey Davis right there in his hip pocket... and finish that off. I’ll look forward to that.

For Wisconsin, this is a launching pad opportunity to get a win in bowl season, to get to 11 wins. They’re returning, I believe, nine starters on defense. They’re pretty excited about the other safety and corner, ya know, one’s a transfer from Hawai’i that’ll probably start at one of those spots. You’re looking at nine senior returning to a fourth-best scoring defense in every metric and is top five defense in the country and most people return on offense other than [Corey] Clements. They’ll use this game to propel forward.

If they win, they’ll find themselves in the top 10 next season. If they lose, they’ll be outside that top 10 and maybe even outside the top 15. That perception and sales job moving forward is always a big part of college football.

Give us one final observation about WMU.

Huard: It’s pretty amazing that one of their first team meetings last year after the bowl game was PJ putting the Cotton Bowl emblem up right on the overhead projector for those guys to look at and he didn’t say anything for two minutes. He didn’t have to.

Way back when, 11 months ago, that was the vision or what was possible with this group. To reel off 13 in a row in a convincing manner and to be here is pretty cool.

Many thanks to the folks at ESPN for granting us time for an interview and especially to Brock Huard for reaching out personally. Brock hosts a radio show at AM 710 in Seattle, Washington, and is a college football analyst for ESPN networks.

Brock can be followed on Twitter @BrockESPN.