Let's Get Excited for the Cotton Bowl! (No really...please...because no one is)

The 2016 season was an interesting one for the Badgers. I, along with pretty much everyone else around the state and country, thought UW was going to be a middle-of-the-road team and a carbon copy of those 6-6 teams that former head coach Bret Bielema churned out early in his coaching career. Sure, the team would have some talent, but one would be foolish to think that they would come away unscathed with that schedule. We were all wrong, of course, as head coach Paul Chryst & Co. have climbed their way to 10 wins for the second consecutive season. On the flip side, whom did the Badgers really beat? Or, better yet, how many games did you feel like the team in red truly dominated from start to finish against a quality opponent?

Yes, Bucky can hang its hat on the fact that its three loses were each by seven points and against top-10 teams, but moral victories are about as useful, or actually useless, as participation trophies. To make matters worse, the game against Western Michigan presents itself as a no-win situation, which Rich smartly addressed on the latest podcast, but I’m here to tell you that – after much thought and meditation – there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Maybe.

 While beating an undefeated team surely carries weight, a victory against Western Michigan would not exactly be marquee. To put it more bluntly, the Broncos’ strength of schedule as of 11/29 was literally the worst among the top-25, checking in at 118th. They have only beaten three teams with a winning record (Eastern Michigan, Ohio, and Toledo), which all conveniently lost their bowl game. Overall, their FBS opponents’ combined 2016 regular season record was 63-82 (.434).

Therefore, if UW beats Western Michigan at Jerry’s World, it is hard not to have the following response, “Well, yeah, the Badgers should beat a MAC team that played nobody all year, so what is there to get excited about?” I would bet that Florida State fans had similar sentiments when the Seminoles played and ultimately defeated Northern Illinois in the 2013 Orange Bowl, and they are now on the verge of losing three-straight bowl games for the first time in program history. But, what about if P.J. Fleck & Co. beat Wisconsin? There are many that will consider it a bad loss, a sign that the Badgers simply aren’t ready to be a national contender.

Altogether, whether the Badgers are playing WMU, Oklahoma, or Incarnate Word, Monday’s bowl victory will actually be quite meaningful from a global perspective. That is, Wisconsin has only won three-straight bowl games in as many years once in its 27-game bowl history (1998 Rose Bowl, 1999 Rose Bowl, and 2000 Sun Bowl).

Riding a two-game winning streak in bowl play, this year’s squad can, therefore, become the second team to achieve that feat. And after losing four-straight bowl games spanning from the 2010 to 2013 regular season (three Rose Bowls + Capital One Bowl), including six out of seven, fans should not take a bowl victory for granted. It is, after all, a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, too.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox and actually write about what I promised Rich and Max – a preview of the Cotton Bowl, presented by Goodyear Tires (#branding).

Offense

Without a doubt, the Broncos’ calling card is their explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball. Three-year starting quarterback Zach Terrell has completed a career-high 71% of his passes, throwing for 3,376 yards to go along with a career-high 32 TDs & career-low three INTs. As to how the gunslinger stacks up with the other quarterbacks across the country, Terrell is fourth in Passing Efficiency (180.6) and 10th in Total QBR (81.9). The difference between Passing Efficiency and Total QBR is as follows, according to ESPN: “Unlike NCAA Passer Efficiency, which uses only box score statistics, Total QBR accounts for what a quarterback does on a play-by-play level, meaning it accounts for down, distance, field position, as well as the clock and score.”

Still, Terrell will be the best QB that the Badgers have faced this season in terms of Total QBR, as Michigan’s Wilton Speight is ranked 20th; PSU’s Trace McSorley is ranked 31st; OSU’s J.T. Barrett is ranked 38th; and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is ranked 42nd. Speaking of McSorley, senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel told Jason Galloway earlier this week that there are a lot of offensive similarities between the Broncos and Nittany Lions, in particular “big-play capability.”

In case you need a friendly reminder, McSorley threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns, with a large chunk of that coming in the second half. What was particularly concerning, and something that the UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox *probably* stressed throughout bowl prep, was the number of long passes that the Badgers’ secondary allowed in the Big Ten Championship Game. On their first possession of the second half, the Nittany Lions ran one play and turned it into a 70-yard touchdown completion. On their third possession, McSorley completed passes of 38 yards, 25 yards, and 18 yards, the latter of which resulted in a touchdown. (If you want to bring about some unwanted anger/frustration, check out the play-by-play breakdown of the second half. Woof.).  

Penn State’s wide receivers made their fair share of plays, as Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton both eclipsed 115 receiving yards. I am not entirely sure whether WMU’s receiving corp is better than Penn State’s receiving corp or not, but it certainly has more star power. Specifically, senior Corey Davis, who is looking to become the first MAC wide receiver selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since Randy Moss, will finish his career as the leader in NCAA career receiving yards (5,205). Not to mention, his 18 touchdowns this season rank second in the country, while his 1,427 receiving yards rank ninth in the country.

Michael Henry, who is listed at 5-foot-11, is second on the team in receptions (61) and yards (760). Senior Carrington Thompson is second on the team in touchdowns (6) but has only registered 38 receptions for 605 yards. It is important to point out that Davis, Henry, and Thompson all have receptions of over 50 yards, meaning that Terrell is not afraid to chuck it deep. Let’s see whether UW’s secondary plays the ball this time around.

But, in my opinion, the Badgers will win their third-straight bowl game if they get pressure on the quarterback and do so on a consistent basis. As Rich and Max noted during the Preview podcast, the defensive line was gassed in the second half against Penn State (injuries/lack of depth didn’t help matters, either). The pass rush, as a result, was almost entirely absent. I should give credit where credit is due, though – Penn State’s offensive line in regards to pass blocking is pretty solid overall; their adjusted sack rate (sacks divided by (sacks plus passes)) per Football Outsiders is 128.4 (31st). Similarly, Western Michigan‘s adjusted sack rate is 125.9 (34th). To a greater extent, the Broncos have allowed 1.08 sacks per game, which is tied for 12th.  

In turn, the unit’s play has opened up several holes for the Broncos’ rushing attack. Led by Illinois native Jarvion Franklin, the junior running back totaled 1,300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 241 carries (5.4 yards/carry). Jamauri Bogan holds a similar yards-per-carry average (5.3) while accumulating 865 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Terrell can also make plays with his legs, registering six touchdowns on the ground. However, the Badgers should be able to neutralize Franklin & Co. The defensive unit ranks second in rush defense, allowing a mere 96.9 rush yards/game.

One last thing, which may be a “No sh*t, Rex” anecdote: I truly do not think that the defense’s second half performance accurately represents what they bring to the table. It is easy to forget, but the Badgers held the aforementioned, top-QBR gunslingers – excluding McSorley – to an average of 53.3% completion rate, 198.3 passing yards, less than one touchdown (0.67), and just over one interception (1.33). Ultimately, then, something has to give.

Defense

The Broncos’ defense is not nearly as efficient as its offense – OK, not really at all – but they are a solid group collectively. WMU’s scoring defense allows 19.5 points per game, good for 14th in the country, while they allow a total of 353 yards per game, good for 27th.  Digging a little deeper, the team’s defensive front struggled throughout the 2016 season. They only averaged two sacks per game (71st) and 5.3 tackles for loss per game (93rd). Moreover, they allowed an average of 151.2 rush yards per game, which ranks 47th.

Even more so, WMU’s defensive unit struggled against FBS teams with a winning record during the regular season (Eastern Michigan, Ohio, and Toledo). In total, they allowed an average of 135 rushing yards, 254 passing yards, and roughly 30 points per game. Toledo, who owned the best regular season record among the aforementioned teams, produced the most consistent offensive numbers against the Broncos, totaling 227 yards on the ground and 229 yards through the air. The Rockets also put up 35 points, yet they lost by 20 in Kalamazoo.

Nevertheless, the player that represents the biggest challenge for UW’s offensive line is senior defensive end Keion Adams. The second-team all-MAC selection leads the team in tackles for loss (17), sacks (7.5), quarterback hits (12), and forced fumbles (3). The offensive line will also have to keep an eye out for inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who joined Adams as a second-team all-conference selection. The Oak Park, Ill., native leads the team in tackles with 105 and was second on the team in tackles for loss (9) and interceptions (3).

Speaking of the latter, cornerback Darius Phillips is the leader of the Broncos’ secondary, reeling in a team-high four interceptions while returning three for a touchdown. He also leads the team in pass deflections with nine. Not to mention, the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year totaled two touchdowns in that phase of the game, one as a kick returner and the other as a punt returner. 

Prediction

Do I hope it’s a blowout? Absolutely. Do I think it’s going to be a blowout? Not exactly. WMU will keep it close in the first half because Fleck’s pre-game speech of “None of you guys even sniffed a scholarship offer from Wisconsin, so go out and prove you deserved one!” will light a fire under their tails. But at the end of the day, the cream always rises to the top, which means that UW will gain some separation in the second half by relying on the run game and dialing up timely blitzes on the opposite side of the ball. 

One last tidbit for good measure: Per OddsShark, the Badgers have won their last 17 games against MAC teams and are 11-6 against the spread in such games. As of this writing, the good guys are 8-point favorites.

35-20, UW