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Broncos' undefeated wave ends in Cotton Bowl defeat

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — It had been 412 days since Western Michigan last lost a football game.

There's a reason why years, even decades from now, people  in Kalamazoo still will be talking — and smiling — about this team.

The Broncos made a spirited bid at an improbable perfect season, but they fell one score short in a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl before a crowd of 59,615 at AT&T Stadium on Monday afternoon.

The last loss for Western Michigan (13-1) was Nov. 18, 2015, against Northern Illinois.

BOX SCORE: Cotton Bowl, Wisconsin 24, Western Michigan 16

As the clock wound down on the season, coach P.J. Fleck called his players over to the sideline one final time.

"Yeah, teaching moment," Fleck said. "It's teaching them how to lose. They haven't lost in 14 months, right? And I told them I was proud of them, how much I love them. And the effort they gave. And we will continue to learn from this.

"I just wanted to make sure they knew to hold their heads high."

It looked early like the Broncos were severely overmatched by the bulky Badgers (11-3), who come from the land of milk and cheese.

But 12th-ranked Western Michigan responded from a startling start, and had a chance in the second half to pull off the upset against eighth-ranked Wisconsin.

Surprisingly, it was a turnover — WMU forced so many this year, and gave up so few — that cost the Broncos perfection, when, early in the fourth quarter and pinned at the 3 by a good Wisconsin punt, senior quarterback Zach Terrell on the first play of the drive threw  over the middle and was picked off by Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards.

WMU's P.J. Fleck might be fit at Minnesota

There were four red jerseys between Terrell, under duress all day, and his intended receiver, and if Edwards — a former WMU commitment — didn't get it, someone else would've.

Three plays later, Wisconsin freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook found the star of the game, tight end Troy Fumagalli, in the corner of the end zone for the dagger touchdown to take a two-touchdown lead.

It was just Terrell's fourth interception of the season.

"It was just a force on my part," said Terrell, his voice starting to crack. "And the ball is the program. It's something that Coach Fleck has instilled in us since he first got here. And I didn't take care of it. Costly error. Put the defense in a tough position, and Wisconsin did a tremendous job of capitalizing on it."

Western Michigan, no surprise, didn't mail it in after that. Terrell went 7-for-9 on the very next drive, a 16-play, 75-yard march that ended with Terrell scrambling well to his right and heaving a prayer to the end zone, when his fellow senior star, Corey Davis, caught it, one more highlight catch in a career that's been chock full of them.

That was the 51st touchdown connection between Terrell and Davis, tying the NCAA record set by Rice's Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard in 2005-08.

Freshman Butch Hampton, who with a 27-yard field goal earlier set a Mid-American Conference record for points in a season (128), missed the point-after attempt, but it was a moot point when WMU's onside kick attempt, while muffed, went Wisconsin's way when the ball scooted out of bounds.

The Badgers responded with a clock-sucking drive. On third-and-8 with 2:40 left and WMU fans chanting, "Row the Boat," Wisconsin senior quarterback Bart Houston, who got the start, hit Fumagalli open over the middle for the clincher.

On its previous scoring drive, WMU used up nearly nine minutes, wasting a whole lot of time between plays despite the deep deficit.

Western faces rebuilding task with loss of key players

For Wisconsin, the win provides a good feeling to cap a season that was often tough to stomach. Its three losses were to three of the top six teams in the country, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, the latter in the Big Ten championship after blowing a 14-point halftime lead and, thus, a trip to the Rose Bowl.

"It kind of left a bad taste in our mouth after the Big Ten championship game," said Edwards, who was named the Cotton Bowl's defensive MVP. "It was just time to prove ourselves, and I'm glad we could do that."

Western Michigan trailed 17-7 at halftime, which wasn't so bad, given how the game started. It looked like a blowout in the making after Wisconsin shredded Western Michigan's defense on the opening drive, going 75 yards on 11 plays in 6:13.

It did whatever it wanted in the run game, with Corey Clement finishing off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run right up the middle — completely untouched.

After a Broncos punt, the Badgers then went 88 yards and seven plays, with Dare Ogunbowale's 1-yard rush capping the drive. Wisconsin actually went to the pass a bit on that drive, with Houston completing a 20- and 23-yarder on the drive.

Houston and Hornibrook didn't throw much, but were a combined 13-for-14 (Houston 11-for-12), including several big completions on third down, many on third and long. Wisconsin was 7-for-11 for the game on third down.

"They did a nice job of adjusting," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of Western Michigan, which allowed 184 rushing yards — with 104 coming in the first quarter.

Clement finished with 81 yards on 22 carries, but was mostly a nonfactor the last three quarters.

Western Michigan, the Group of Five representative in the prestigious New Year's Six collection of bowls, got on the board with its first of two 16-play touchdown drives, this one spanning 65 yards in the second quarter, with Terrell, on third-and-goal, running the end-around keeper from 2 yards out to make it 14-7.

The Broncos got two call reversals in their favor on that drive, a fumble by junior Jarvion Franklin that eventually was ruled not a fumble because his elbow was down, and an incompletion by senior Carrington Thompson that was changed to a completion.

Western Michigan was credited with three fumbles, and luckily didn't lose any of them. The Badgers bemoaned that afterward, and that kept the game in question until late.

"The ball security just looked at times like it wasn't us," Fleck said.

Terrell finished 16-for-28 for 157 yards, with the touchdown and interception. He rarely has seen that much pressure in his career, and Wisconsin players said they could sense him getting flustered as the game went along, ahead of the costly interception.

Davis had six catches for 73 yards and finishes his career with 5,285 yards, most in Football Bowl Subdivision history. Jamauri Bogan had 59 yards on 16 carries, Franklin 53 on seven.

For Wisconsin, Fumagalli, the game's offensive MVP who was a former walk-on at Wisconsin and only has nine fingers, finished with six catches for 83 yards, most absolute gems and in critical situations.

Fleck, in his fourth year at Western Michigan, understandably was emotional after the game, sitting next to two guys, Terrell and Davis, who've been with him every step of the way — from 1-11 in Year 1 to the special season that was 2016.

"Absolutely. I'm an emotional guy," Fleck said. "I know that's not a secret for any of you. I'm an emotional guy. I am.

"These are my kids. We have four children, Heather and I. But we have got 105 of them in there. That's the way I feel. This senior class has done so much for this football program.

"They took, I think, one of the worst college football teams in the country, with all due respect, and made it eight points away from winning a Cotton Bowl championship."

WMU's 2016 season results

Sept. 3: d. Northwestern, 22-21

Sept. 10: d. N.C. Central, 70-21

Sept. 17: d. Illinois, 34-10

Sept. 24: d. Georgia Southern, 49-31

Oct. 1: d. Central Michigan, 49-10

Oct. 8: d. Northern Illinois, 45-30

Oct. 15: d. Akron, 41-0

Oct. 22: d. Eastern Michigan, 45-31

Nov. 1: d. Ball State, 52-20

Nov. 8: d. Kent State, 37-21

Nov. 19: d. Buffalo, 38-0

Nov. 25: d. Toledo, 55-35

Dec. 2: d. Ohio, 29-26 (MAC championship)

Jan. 2: l. to Wisconsin, 24-16 (Cotton Bowl)

Troy Fumagalli of the Wisconsin Badgers scores a touchdown against Caleb Bailey (8) and Darius Phillips (4) of the Western Michigan Broncos in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin defeated Western Michigan, 24-16, in the Cotton Bowl Monday.