In Wisconsin’s first game of the season at Lambeau Field, Troy Fumagalli was the key offensive player, totaling 100 yards on seven catches. Throughout the rest of the regular season, only once did he have more than five catches or 55 yards. The tight end, that many predicted would be the team’s big playmaker after the explosion in Green Bay, had gone silent.
In Wisconsin’s final game of the season, Fumagalli returned to the spotlight as the team’s best offensive player, leading the No. 8 Badgers to a 24-16 win over No. 15 Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. With six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, Fumagalli was named the recipient of the Sanford Trophy as the Cotton Bowl’s outstanding offensive player.
The 6-foot-6 Fumagalli frequently found himself on the favorable side of a mismatch against a WMU defense that couldn’t find a suitable answer.
“We knew he was really good, right? But we don't have some 6-foot-3 safeties or anything really to contest with him,” Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said. “You see some of his catches were contested by Darius Phillips, and we put our best cover guy on him at different times.”
Senior running back Corey Clement started the scoring with a two-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening drive to give UW a 7-0 lead. However, Clement wouldn’t have reached the end zone if it wasn’t for a diving, one-handed catch by Fumagalli on third down that kept the drive alive.
After forcing the Broncos to punt, Wisconsin picked up right where it left off, as the team marched down the field with ease and lengthened their lead to 14-0. This time it wasn’t Clement, but senior running back Dare Ogunbowale who capped the drive with a one-yard rushing score. After that, though, the rushing game disappeared.
Halfway through the second quarter, Western Michigan struck back with a two-yard rush by senior quarterback Zach Terrell. It was an uncharacteristic half for the Broncos, as senior receiver Corey Davis only had two catches, in part because the Wisconsin front-seven was able to pressure Terrell before he was able to find the star wideout.
For most of the second half, it felt like Western Michigan was in control. Wisconsin only gained 28 rushing yards, the Broncos had three more first downs and WMU had the ball for nearly four more minutes. When push came to shove, though, the Badgers were able to make plays when it counted.
With Western Michigan deep in their own territory after a UW punt, sophomore linebacker T.J Edwards picked off a pass, giving Wisconsin the ball at the 12-yard line. Three plays later, freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook found Fumagalli in the back of the end zone to put Wisconsin up 24-10.
The Broncos did come back and scare the Badger faithful with a strong touchdown catch by Davis, but by missing the extra point and failing to recover the ensuing onside kick, the game was over.
While the rushing attack was futile in the second half, its success in the first half led to openings in the second that allowed the passing game to shine.
“They did a nice job of adjusting. It gave us some other plays,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I thought we did enough adjusting that was good and gave our players a chance.”
Not to be lost in a big day by the tight end is the team’s quarterback play. The two passers went a combined 13-for-14 for 178 yards and a touchdown. When you take into account that the only incompletion was a drop in the end zone by Fumagalli, the often-mediocre quarterback pair was perfect.
“It was good to see Bart finish his career here at Wisconsin the way that he did. And I'm excited about the growth that Alex took this year and the steps he can take to go forward,” Chryst said. “Both were important to us all year long.”
Throughout the year, Wisconsin has come close to winning a number of big games, only to lose a close contest at the end. In the last game of the year, in the historic Cotton Bowl nonetheless, they were finally able to get over the hump.
“We’ve been through a lot and the way we were able to do it today kind of sums up our season,” junior linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We started strong; we faced some adversity; and then we bounced back from adversity and got the win.”