ARLINGTON, Texas — Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli made a leaping 8-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and the Badgers won 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl on Monday to deny Western Michigan an undefeated season.
The TD catch by Fumagalli with 14 minutes left, in the back of the end zone between two defenders, came three plays after a rare interception thrown by Zach Terrell and made it 24-10.
With their “Row The Boat” mentality inspired by young head coach P.J. Fleck, the 12th-ranked Broncos (13-1) made it from one win during his first season in Kalamazoo three years ago to the last FBS team other than No. 1 Alabama this season with a chance to be undefeated.
“Told them I was very proud of them, how much I love them, and the effort they gave,” Fleck said about what he told his team on the sideline just before the end of the game. “We will continue to learn from this. We will embrace our past to create our future, and it just wasn’t enough tonight.”
Eighth-ranked Wisconsin (11-3), which finished with 11 wins for the fourth time in seven seasons, was clearly bigger and stronger — especially up front. The Big Ten runner-up Badgers set the tone early, with rushing touchdowns on their first two drives to take a 14-0 lead against the Group of Five team.
Fumagalli had several other highlight catches, including a one-handed 20-yard grab on the Badgers’ opening drive, and a 26-yard catch to convert third-and-8 as they ran out the final 3:27 after Western Michigan scored.
Terrell combined with All-America receiver Corey Davis for 51 career touchdowns, tying the FBS record on an 11-yarder on fourth down with 3:27 left. Even with cornerback Sojourn Shelton’s arms wrapped around him in the back of the end zone, Davis broke free to make the catch.
“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,” said Davis, the FBS career leader in receiving yards and likely first-round NFL draft pick in April. “My four years at Western have been phenomenal. We’ve been through so much and I’ve learned so many lessons on the field, and off the field.”
Terrell had 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions this season, the last pick by Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards.
“It kind of left a bad taste in our mouth after the Big Ten championship game,” Edwards said. “We just wanted to get back out there and prove ourselves again.”
Western Michigan: The Broncos never backed down and Fleck has set a solid foundation for them to keep rowing forward, even with the loss of guys like Davis and Terrell, who were part of that one-win season in 2013. Western Michigan had only 280 total yards, 217 below its season average.
Wisconsin: The only losses this season for the Badgers were to Big Ten foes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, the last in the Big Ten title game. They all also played in New Year’s Six games. Freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who started nine games before a concussion forced him to miss the Big Ten championship game, was 2-of-2 passing. He threw the TD pass to Fumagalli, who finished with six catches for 83 yards.
Western Michigan knows it has to continue play Power Five teams to have chances for more New Year’s Six games, and maybe eventually a playoff appearance. The Broncos open next season Sept. 2 at USC, a week before they play Michigan State, another Big Ten opponent.
Wisconsin always gets a chance to prove itself in the Big Ten. So the Badgers can ease into its season, and will Sept. 1 at home against Utah State.