ARLINGTON, Texas – As far as consolation prizes go, winning the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic wasn't a bad one for No. 8 Wisconsin.
"It means a ton," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "This is the last time this team plays together and to be able to get a win against a good team, I'm really proud of them. Means a lot."
It wasn't easy, but Wisconsin downed previously undefeated No. 15 Western Michigan 24-16 on Monday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
Though the Badgers (11-3) jumped ahead early and never trailed in their first appearance in the Cotton Bowl, the upstarts from the Mid-American Conference weren't intimidated lining up against a traditional power on a national stage.
The Badgers bounced back from a disappointing loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Conference championship game. Under second-year coach Chryst, Wisconsin won 11 games for the first time since 2011.
The Badgers had their eyes on the Rose Bowl before falling apart in the second half against the Nittany Lions. The Cotton Bowl served as a New Year's Six consolation prize for the Big Ten runners-up.
"It left a bad taste in our mouth, the Big Ten championship game," Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "We wanted to get back out there and prove ourselves again."
The loss ended a storybook season for the Broncos (13-1) and their 36-year-old coach, P.J. Fleck. The Broncos hoped to finish off a perfect campaign with a statement win for the Group of Five.
Instead, the Broncos appeared to be overmatched physically for the first time this season. Western Michigan had grown accustomed to being the bully, winning all but two games by at least 14 points.
"They played their style of football better than we played our style," Fleck said.
The Badgers were up 14-0 in the first quarter after two long scoring drives and seemed to be in control. Wisconsin rolled up 166 yards in the first quarter, with 104 coming on the ground.
The Broncos didn't get down at that point. The message from their coach echoed their season-long rallying cry.
"It was row boat," Fleck said. "Put your oar in the water and keep rowing."
The Broncos did fight their way back. They were down only 17-10 after a field goal early in the third quarter and had the ball back twice with a chance to pull closer. They couldn't.
A costly interception thrown by Zach Terrell deep in Western Michigan territory early in the fourth quarter nearly ended any upset hopes. Edwards made the pick and was named the game's Outstanding Defensive Player.
"That was the one time where we had them backed up and T.J. comes up with a big play, and we're able to capitalize," Chryst said.
Wisconsin starting quarterback Bart Houston completed 11 of 12 passes for 159 yards and no interceptiomns, but the Badgers' only touchdown pass of the game was thrown by backup quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He hooked up with Troy Fumagalli in the back of the end zone from 8 yards out early in the fourth quarter to push the Badgers' advantage back to two touchdowns.
Western Michigan did mount one more touchdown drive, with Terrell finding Corey Davis on an improbable 11-yard pass on fourth down with 3:27 left. The extra point was missed, leaving the Broncos down eight points.
The ensuing onside kick was almost fumbled away by Wisconsin, but the ball rolled out of bounds. The Badgers were able to run out the clock in posting their third straight bowl win.
Fumagalli finished with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and was named the game's Most Outstanding Offensive Player. Corey Clement closed out his collegiate career with 71 yards rushing on 22 attempts and a score.
Terrell capped a brilliant season by completing 16 of 28 passes for 157 yards with one touchdown and a pick. Terrell finished the season with 33 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
Davis and Terrell also connected on their 51st touchdown, tying the all-time FBS record. Davis caught six passes for 73 yards to finish his senior season with 1,500 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.
Fleck is a hot coaching commodity going forward after taking a program to from 1-11 in 2013 to the brink of an unbeaten season. Asked about his immediate future, Fleck attempted to cut off any speculation.
"I love where I'm at," he said.
The Badgers found little resistance on their first possession, driving 75 yards in 11 plays. Wisconsin ran it nine times, with Clement going the final 2 yards for the game's first touchdown.
Another long touchdown drive followed to make it 14-0. Dare Ogunbowale completed the 88-yard march by powering the ball in from the 1.
The Broncos got on the board in the second quarter after converting a fourth down in Wisconsin territory. The 16-play, 65-yard march ended with Terrell scoring on a naked bootleg from the 2-yard line.
Wisconsin went into halftime up 17-7 on Andrew Endicott's 30-yard field goal in the first minute of the second quarter.
NOTES: Paul Chryst became the third Wisconsin coach to win at least 11 games in a season, joining Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema. ... Western Michigan's appearance in the Cotton Bowl was its first New Year's Six berth and just the second for the MAC. Northern Illinois was in the 2012 Orange Bowl. ... Wisconsin took part in its sixth New Year's Six bowl, with the other five being the Rose Bowl. ... Wisconsin's run of 15 consecutive bowls is tied for the sixth-longest active streak. ... The Broncos finished the season 2-1 against the Big Ten, having beaten Northwestern and Illinois in September. ... Wisconsin leads the all-time series against Western Michigan 4-1.