'Dream come true': Western faces Wisconsin in Cotton Bowl

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Zach Terrell

P.J. Fleck remembers the day. It was Jan. 7 of this year when he gathered his Western Michigan football team for a meeting that would lay out the goals, expectations and, oh yeah, the pressure for the 2016 season.

The fourth-year WMU coach told his players and coaches in blunt terms just how special the season could be.

And then he had a logo flashed onto the wall inside the football building.

It was the Cotton Bowl logo.

"We wanted to at least show them what the expectations were going to become," Fleck said Sunday afternoon. "Who would've thought, here we are accepting a bid to the Cotton Bowl?

"It's pretty amazing to really kind of see it in full force, pan out the way it has."

Western Michigan, 13-0 and the Mid-American Conference champion after beating Ohio, 29-23, in the title game Friday night at Ford Field, will play in its most prestigious bowl game ever, the Cotton Bowl.

The game, part of the coveted New Year's Six slate, will be Jan. 2 — Jan. 1 is an NFL Sunday this year — at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The opponent will be Wisconsin, the champion of the Big Ten West — and WMU's third Big Ten opponent this year.

"This is absolutely a dream come true for our incredible university," athletic director Kathy Beauregard said. "It's been a dream of ours at Western Michigan University every single day to make the best things possible to create more pride, enthusiasm, excitement.

"I couldn't be more proud."

WMU likely secured the Cotton Bowl bid with its thrilling win over Ohio on Friday night, and players and coaches said as much after the victory — for WMU's first MAC title since 1988, and just third ever. It would've been awfully tough to justify to the MAC how a team could do no wrong, yet be denied a spot in the premier bowl game available to a mid-major.

But it wasn't official until Saturday, when Navy (9-3), WMU's chief competition for the "Group of Five" bid into the New Year's Six field, lost to Temple, 34-10, in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

That made the decision much easier for the College Football Playoff committee, which Sunday chose the four playoff teams, plus the New Year's Six bowl participants.

Was Fleck ever concerned?

"Navy played?" he quipped Saturday, after recruiting earlier in the day and before attending an Ugly Christmas Sweater party at night.

This is an intriguing matchup, Wisconsin (10-3), a 38-31 loser to Penn State in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night, and Western Michigan.

The Badgers' three losses were to Michigan (No. 6 CFP rankings), Ohio State (No. 3) and Penn State (No. 5), all by just a touchdown.

They have an impressive defense, along the lines of what WMU faced in Ohio. The Broncos also have a good defense, with a plus-19 turnover margin that is second in the country, to playoff participant

Washington, but is regarded more for a high-octane offense led by a pair of seniors who'll likely play in the NFL, receiver Corey Davis for sure, and quarterback Zack Terrell.

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WMU has beaten a pair of Big Ten teams this season, Northwestern, 22-21 in the season opener, and Illinois, 34-10, in Week 3. In fact, the Broncos have more Big Ten wins than Michigan State, Purdue and Rutgers, and are tied with Illinois.

The Northwestern win caught the nation's attention in September. But a win here would really help convince folks that the Broncos are legit and not just a product of a schedule the 12-person CFP committee saw as soft.

"We need to get going, like now," Fleck said of preparations for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin spent much of the season in the top 10 of the CFP rankings, while Western Michigan never got in there, finishing at 15 there, and is 12th in the latest AP poll, and 14th in the latest coaches' poll.

A victory over Wisconsin could land the Broncos in the top 10 of the AP and coaches' poll at season's end.

This marks the third consecutive season a team from Michigan will play in the Cotton Bowl, after Michigan State beat Baylor two years ago and lost to Alabama in the 2015 national semifinals. Prior, a Michigan team hadn't played in the game, which dates to the 1930s.

This also marks the third consecutive year WMU will be going to a bowl, a program record. It went 1-11 in 2013, Fleck's first season, then 8-5 with a bowl loss, then 8-5 with a bowl win (also a first, in the Bahamas), and finally, this special season, which has WMU mentioned in the same sentence as top-ranked Alabama. They're the only two perfect teams remaining, after all.

Maybe folks around the country never saw this coming, and there probably were some skeptics on campus, too.

"I don't know if I really knew what to expect," Terrell said of that day Fleck flashed the Cotton Bowl logo on the wall, "or how hard it would be or if we could even do it. It's kind of like setting in a little bit.

"Really, if you do what the culture demands of you, the rest will take care of itself."

That culture — "Row the Boat," "The Ball is the Program," one-game seasons — has become the stuff of legends in Kalamazoo.

This is the program's eighth bowl bid, but no disrespect to the Pizza Bowl, or the Potato Bowl, or the Aviation Bowl, there's no comparison here.

Nor is there any contentment, not with being 13-0, and not for a coach who's name is all the rage in job-rumor speculation right now, though he's doing a darn good job of keeping that out of the Western Michigan narrative.

That's appropriate, and no doubt appreciated by WMU brass, which would like to bask in this moment for as long as possible.

"We told our players all week, I don't think they understand what they've actually done," Fleck said Sunday, following a viewing party on campus with coaches, players, administrators and fans. "I think they will when they look back a decade from now, two decades from now.

"This is completely new for us as a program and this university, and it will become the standard and the expectation moving forward. And we understand that."


Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin

When: Monday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m.

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV / radio: ESPN / WDFN

Records: Western Michigan 13-0, Wisconsin 10-3

Series: Wisconsin leads 3-1

Tickets: $50-$200, available at WMUBroncos.com and the WMU box office.


Coach: Paul Chryst (second year, 20-6; 39-25 overall)

Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)

Players to watch: RB Corey Clement — Wisconsin always seems to find those bruising backs. Clement has been the go-to guy on offense this season. The 5-foot-11, 227-pound senior has rushed for 1,304 yards and 14 TDs. He averages more than 108 yards per game. QB Alex Hornibrook — The 6-4, 219-pound freshman from West Chester, Pa., has split time with senior Bart Houston, and has had some solid performances, notably in wins at Michigan State and Iowa. His availability will be a question, as he suffered a head injury in a late-season game against Minnesota. Houston played the whole Big Ten championship game, a loss to Penn State. LB T.J. Watt — The brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, the 6-5, 243-pound junior has 10.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and an interception. S Leo Musso — The 5-10, 194-pound senior is on staple on a very good defense, as he's second on the team in tackles and has five picks.

Notable: The Badgers have made a bowl game in 22 of the last 24 seasons, and this will be their 15th consecutive year of going to a bowl game. ... Like with WMU, this will be Wisconsin's first appearance in the Cotton Bowl. ... They lost three games this year, to Nos. 3, 5 and 6 in the final College Football Playoff rankings — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. All the defeats were by a touchdown. ... Paul Chryst came from Pittsburgh, opening the way for former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to land his first head-coaching job two years ago.