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Cotton Bowl Deep Dive: Western Michigan comeback bid falls short

Terrell, Davis row the boat with Fleck one last time

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Confetti smothered the field turf directly under the 175-foot long scoreboard at AT&T Stadium on Monday afternoon. But the confetti didn’t sprinkle on P.J. Fleck and the Western Michigan Broncos, who exited the field with an unfamiliar feeling — the first loss in a 13-1 season.

Eight points short of perfection.

The Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Broncos 24-16 in a hard-fought game in Arlington to win the 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The game marked the finale of the 2016 MAC champions’ most successful season in program history and the end of the legendary careers of several Western Michigan seniors.

“We made some good plays, but we didn’t make enough of them,” senior quarterback Zach Terrell said. “That’s why Wisconsin won the game.”

In what ultimately separated the two teams, Terrell threw an interception on first down backed against his own goal line. The recipient was none other than former P.J. Fleck recruit T.J. Edwards. Edwards, the defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl, switched his commitment to Wisconsin following Western Michigan’s 1-11 season in 2013, and executed one of the most vital plays of the contest.

“Got to give T.J. [Edwards] a lot of credit,” Fleck said. “He did come up to me after the game. I do want to say that. He did come up to me. It was kind of ironic.”

Several plays later, quarterback Alex Hornibrook beat a Bronco pass rush by lobbing the ball to the end zone. Tight end Troy Fumagalli put the cherry on top of a magnificent day with an impressive touchdown catch. The six-foot-six-inch junior tight end dominated in Jerry Jones’ house with six catches, 83 yards, and a score.

Besides the touchdown, the offensive MVP Fumagalli created a highlight reel for himself. On the Badgers’ opening touchdown drive, the tight end snagged an impressive one-handed grab in the red zone, despite a defensive holding penalty. He finished what he started, making the game-sealing catch on third down and eight as the game’s final seconds ticked away.

Wisconsin utilized two quarterbacks in the Cotton Bowl, starting Bart Houston. Houston (11-of-12) and Hornibrook (2-of-2) combined for one incompletion in the entire game — a dropped pass right before the half.

Despite the success of the pass game, Wisconsin most frequently turned to its signature running game. Star senior running back Corey Clement carried the ball 22 times for 81 yards and was the first player to register points in the rather low-scoring affair.

Wisconsin jumped out to a quick, 14-0 lead. Western Michigan had only trailed by double-digits once all season, but Fleck’s message remained constant. In fact, it was the same message he preached to a 1-11 team in 2013.

"Row the Boat," Fleck said he told his team during the game. “Put your oar in the water and just keep rowing. We're in a storm right now, and it's pretty bad. But, again, if we stop rowing, it's going to get a lot worse and we'll never get out of it.”

The Wisconsin offense stumped the Western Michigan defense in the first half by running plays far outside the hash marks. Jet sweeps to Jazz Peavy and out routes burned the Bronco defense early. A major adjustment would not be implemented until the second half. The Badgers scored on three of four of their first half drives — all scoring drives captained by the senior, Houston.

Western Michigan scored its lone touchdown in the first half on a 16 play, 65-yard drive that lasted well over 20 minutes in real time. During the prolonged possession, the Broncos fought through a dropped Wisconsin interception, multiple booth reviews, and a difficult fourth down conversion on a pass to Corey Davis, who finished with six catches and 73 yards.

On the possession’s final play on third and goal, Terrell faked a handoff and took it himself on a quarterback bootleg. He juked the opposing defender Garret Dooley and the play concluded with Dooley on the ground and Terrell untouched in the end zone.

“We've run a similar play where I hand the ball off all season and I think we kind of took Wisconsin by surprise,” Terrell said. “So the offensive line and running backs has been an effective play, a dive play that we run a lot. Crazy legs kind of got loose, and sometimes that's a good thing. So it worked out.”

Wisconsin responded with a field goal on the next drive, but the Badgers dropped a touchdown pass (the one incompletion) — keeping Western Michigan within 10 points at the midway point.

In the second half, Western Michigan anchored another 65-yard drive, but this one ended in only three points. Jarvion Franklin broke loose for long runs on the drive, powering through the nation’s second-ranked run defense and effectively attempting the spin move on would-be tacklers. But Terrell could not connect with senior receiver Carrington Thompson on first and goal. Butch Hampton nailed the short field goal to cut the Badger lead to one possession. Hampton set a MAC record for most points in a season with the kick.

The Bronco defense approached the second half with rejuvenated character. The unit was finally making key stops on third downs, giving Terrell and the offense two drives with the opportunity to tie the score.

“We started out a little slow,” defensive end Keion Adams said. “You can’t do that against Wisconsin. The way that they play, they control the clock and run the ball. We just had to settle down and lock in, but once we did that we starting getting the ball rolling.”

On the first chance, Western Michigan reached Badger territory, looking strong after a “double reverse-flea flicker-across the field pass” trick play to Corey Davis. The result of the bizarre play-call was a second down and four on the Wisconsin 48. Western Michigan finished the drive with conservative, up-the-middle runs, but could not break through the wall of the Wisconsin defense.

“It was hard,” offensive tackle Taylor Moton said about facing the Wisconsin defense. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but I was proud of our effort.”

But the second opportunity ended in disaster. On the very first play, backed against his own three-yard line, Terrell dropped back and threw the costly interception — his fourth of the season. Fumagalli’s touchdown on the ensuing possession separated the two opponents once more, 24-10.

“Ultimately, it all falls back on my shoulders, and I’ll take that, and that’s something I’ll learn from,” Terrell said.

Only one possession remained in Western Michigan’s season. Although the Broncos fell short, they demonstrated resilience on the nine minute, 16-play, 75-yard drive. The length of the drive prevented Western Michigan from obtaining the ball again, but the Broncos’ skill players expressed their firepower on the possession.

Franklin and Jamauri Bogan both received touches, slowly advancing the Broncos across the field. Terrell completed screen passes to register first down after first down. Once reaching Wisconsin territory, the Broncos faced great adversity, but overcame it each time.

“It showed us entirely as a unit, as Bronco nation, we bought into it,” Franklin said. “We started slow, we came back. We were never really out of it.”

On two consecutive plays, the Broncos fumbled. Terrell was strip-sacked by Wisconsin outside linebacker Vince Biegel, but Moton dove on it. Then, Franklin dropped the ball near the right sideline but immediately recovered to extend the final drive. Several plays later, Fleck’s offense was faced with fourth and four.

It would be the final play of the esteemed careers of Terrell and Davis. And a record-breaking one.

From the 11-yard line, Terrell took the snap and faced pressure from the pass-rush-heavy Wisconsin defense. In what looked like a potential sack, Terrell faded backward and flung the ball toward the end zone to his favorite target. Davis, at the back of the end zone, sprinted forward to catch the lob, fought through the coverage of Sojourn Shelton (who made a Badger-record 51st start), and secured the pigskin with his reliable hands.

“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. “That's what I did. Zach [Terrell] trusted me. Threw the ball up there, and I went to go get it.”

The Terrell-to-Davis connection marked the 51st of their memorable careers. The touchdown tied the NCAA record set by Rice’s Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard for most quarterback-to-receiver touchdowns in history. The two built an unprecedented legacy at Western Michigan and the final touchdown will forever live on in memory for the two seniors.

“We’ll be friends for life because of this bond we have because of what we’ve been through and the successes and failures that we’ve had,” Terrell said of Davis.

Hampton shanked the extra point right, which ultimately did not affect the outcome of the game. Western Michigan attempted an onside kick, which was muffed by Wisconsin, but the Badgers intelligently pushed the ball out of bounds to keep possession.

Western Michigan, with two timeouts, earned the opportunity for a stop. But on third and eight, Houston delivered a strike to an open Fumagalli for a gain of 26. Minutes later, Western Michigan finished with its first loss in over a calendar year.

“The seniors shouldn’t have gone out like this,” inside linebacker Robert Spillane said. “They deserve the world. It was a slow start, and we didn’t catch them in the end.”

It was an emotional scene postgame for the Broncos, who were reflecting on their excellent season despite coming up short.

“We had a hell of a season,” Bogan said. “The guys came to play. That’s what really matters to me and this team. We laid it all out right there.”

Western Michigan ties the 2003 Miami (Oh.) football team for most wins by a MAC team in a season with 13, unable to shatter the record. It was the conference’s first appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl under the new playoff system, and the MAC fell to a winless 0-6 in 2016’s bowl slate.

But the Broncos propelled themselves into the national spotlight as a Group of Five school, aiming to join the annual successes of fellow Group of Five programs such as Houston and Boise State. The seniors believe their legacy will contribute to building a successful program for years to come.

“The Broncos’ future is very bright,” Davis said. “They have a lot of talent, mature guys on this team. They’re very young, but I have a lot of belief in the guys.”

Although Western Michigan is recruiting well with Fleck and may have a bright future, the losses of Terrell and Davis will have a major impact on the program.

“I'm very proud of the two guys to my left (Terrell and Davis),” Fleck said postgame. “I'm really going to miss them. They're amazing, elite people, and elite players. But, like I said, got to give Wisconsin a lot of credit and Coach Chryst. They're an outstanding football team that deserves to be Cotton Bowl champs.”

After a long and successful season, 13 wins, and a Cotton Bowl appearance, Fleck believes his team demonstrated competitiveness and proof that Western Michigan football will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

“I'm very proud of our kids' resolve and the resiliency,” Fleck said. “They showed what Western Michigan football is all about and they showed the entire country why we were 13-0. For all of ‘they’ who thought we didn't belong, we do belong. We'll continue to grow higher, continue to change our best, and keep rowing the boat.”