P.J. Fleck can squeeze blood from a stone, but he can’t coach height. Or girth. Or, for that matter, mass.
Wisconsin’s starting offensive line averages 308 pounds; Western Michigan’s starting defensive line counters at 272. Whenever you find yourself staring at a weight advantage, per man, that’s roughly the size of an adult male border collie, there’s no reason to make things any more complicated than they need to be.
Unless you’re trying to get cute. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” slogan? Cute. Badgers coach Paul Chryst is not averse to cute, so long as it’s a calculated cute. Sleight of hand to set up a power dive. Jet sweep left. Jet sweep right. When Wisconsin hands you a giant bouquet of flowers, chances are, there’s a brick inside.
The 2017 Cotton Bowl had been a foregone conclusion for three weeks, assuming the Badgers (11-3) were interested. As long as the Wisconsin did Badger things — pound the ball like mad (check), set up big pass gains off play action (check), pressure the snot out of Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell (check), take care of the rock (check), don’t beat yourselves (check), get up big early and control the tempo (check) — there wasn’t a boat in the world that would make it upstream against that kind of current.
Badgers 24, WMU 16 was more or less what the Big Ten title game was supposed to be, and, ultimately, wasn’t. Wisconsin ran for 184 yards on the day, with more than half of that tally coming in the first quarter; got a monster game from one of its best targets in tight end Troy Fumagalli (six catches, 83 yards); converted seven of 11 third-down opportunities; stuffed a good Broncos offense to the tune of 280 total yards and, unlike last month in Indianapolis, absorbed the inevitable counterpunch.
They also took care of business, something that could not be said for fellow blue bloods Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa over the last fortnight. This matchup was presumed to be the Big Ten’s most favorable, given the ignominy of being partnered with the Mid-American Conference champions, but it also provided the textbook no-win situation:
Emerge victorious, it’s expected. Lose, and it feels as if the roof at Jerry World just got dropped on your mortal soul.
That said, if anyone insists on slapping an asterisk on Monday because of the competition, tell them to kindly stick their footnote where the sun don’t shine.
Jan. 2 proffered Wisconsin’s first New-Year’s-Six-level victory since the 1999 Rose Bowl and only the 10th New Year’s-Six-level appearance over the last 65 years.
Chumps are not invited to the Cotton Bowl.
The Broncos (13-1) are not Clemson or Florida State. But neither were they happy to let the Badgers skate by on name brand alone. Until Terrell fired a laser from his own end zone a minute into the fourth quarter that was snared at the WMU 12 by Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards, a 17-10 contest was still somewhat in doubt.
“You go back and look,” Chryst told ESPN after the tilt, “to win a game against a good team, you need a lot of plays. And we made enough.”
It was not a masterpiece in the literal or aesthetic sense. The Badgers committed five penalties, two more than the 3.3 they’d averaged coming in.
And while star Broncos wideout Corey Davis managed just two receptions through the game’s first 25 minutes, each catch went for a first down — including a timely grab on fourth-and-5 for a 10-yard gain with 9:31 left in the first half that kept a Broncos scoring drive alive.
The soon-to-be sleeper in your fall 2017 fantasy draft later offered up one of the best single highlights of bowl season. The 6-foot-3 receiver somehow turned a desperate, rolling-right-and-falling-away fourth-down heave from Terrell into an 11-yard score that cut the margin to 24-16:
— Jessie Jones (@lakers4ever777) January 2, 2017
The crazy thing about this catch is…. he doesn’t even push off him once, just fights through it. https://t.co/2tdqvSvfV6
— The D Zone (@TheD_Zone) January 2, 2017
Otherwise, when the Badgers wanted real estate, they took it. Chryst, the bowl-wrinkle master, threw a few more curveballs into the mix than usual. At last year’s Holiday Bowl, it was safety Tanner McEvoy under center and five carries for fullback Derek Watt. This year, we got wideouts Quintez Cephus (two carries, 34 yards) and Jazz Peavy (three for 50) on jet sweeps.
Wisconsin’s first drive offered nine runs on the first 11 plays, totaling 65 yards — or 7.2 per rush. The drive that ended with the second touchdown of the day: seven plays, five rushes, 41 yards — 8.2 per carry. And a lot of this:
“You aint playing Central Michigan any more little boy” -Corey Clement https://t.co/7FldvH46DF
— Jack McGuire (@TailgateHeisman) January 2, 2017
On its three first-half scoring drives, the Badgers ran it 20 times for 158 yards, a clip of nearly 8 per carry. In the end, Fleck, like poor Chief Brody in Jaws, needed a bigger boat. And the shark, 3 tons of ‘im, hasn’t stopped smiling yet.