RESPECT THE BOAT | WMU shows it can play with the big boys in Cotton Bowl loss
The finals score will have those who disagree with that statement pointing out the gap between the top five conferences and the “other” five in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Wisconsin’s 24-16 victory over Western Michigan was just that — a singular outcome in one game.
“What I saw was two evenly matched teams that went toe to toe in a one-possession game,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said outside the Western Michigan locker room at AT&T Stadium. “I’m not much into Group of Five vs. Power Five but Group of Five teams are 2-1 in the CFP era with the only loss by a TD. There are a lot of good teams.”
Over the last decade, the Little Guys have had more than their fair share of success against the Big Boys in BCS and New Year’s Six bowl games. Boise State has won three of the eight games won by Group of Five schools. Western Michigan joined Hawaii (2008 Sugar) and Northern Illinois (2013 Orange) to lose in showcase bowl games.
“We came to play,” junior linebacker Asantay Brown. “We won’t be defined by a loss. We stayed one family. We’ll carry this bond for the rest of our lives. The culture inside this program is something special.”
That was on display after the eighth-ranked Badgers (11-3) scored on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead. Wisconsin came out with an edge and worked the perimeter with four jet sweeps that averaged over 25 yards.
“We just didn’t come out fast,” WMU senior defensive end Keion Adams said. “We weren’t nervous, we just had to settle down. We had to get locked in and get ready. They’re a great team and you can’t get down by 14 to Wisconsin.”
Even with that deficit, a game headed to blowout city took a turn to competitive city. A 2-yard run by Zach Terrell pulled the Broncos to within 14-7. The teams traded field goals and No. 12 Western Michigan (13-1) trailed by seven going into the final quarter.
Team Row The Boat won the MAC and its first 13 games by leading the nation in turnover margin. Western Michigan survived five fumbles — it recovered all of them — but the game’s only turnover proved crucial.
On their first play of the fourth quarter, the Broncos were on their own 3-yard line. Terrell, who had thrown just three interceptions, tried fit in a pass to tight end Donnie Emsberger. Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards – who had verbally committed to WMU before signing with the Badgers — made the pick.
Three plays later, on third-and-6, 6-6 tight end Troy Fumagalli elevated in the back of the end zone for an eight-yard TD catch. He finished with six receptions for 83 yards and was named the game’s outstanding offensive player.
Western Michigan kept its oars in the water and Terrell’s desperation fourth-and-four fling found All-American Corey Davis in the back of the end zone with 3:27 to play. One negative: the drive went 75 yards in 16 plays and consumed nearly nine minutes. The second, bigger negative: Butch Hampton missed the extra point.
The Badgers corralled the onside kick and converted two third downs — including a 26-yard reception by Fumagalli — to end the game in victory formation.
Trailing by two touchdowns, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck had a familiar answer regarding his message to the Broncos.
“It's probably going to be really shocking to you, but it was 'Row the Boat.' Put your oar in the water and just keep rowing,” he said. “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.
“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.”
Above: Western Michigan's Zach Terrell celebrates after scoring Monday in the second quarter of the 81st Cotton Bowl Classic against Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)