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Wisconsin to face undefeated Western Michigan in Cotton Bowl

Wisconsin Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt (42) walks off the field after being defeated by the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Big Ten Championship college football game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. Penn State won 38-31. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Jason Galloway

The Wisconsin State Journal

INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t what the University of Wisconsin football team or any of its fans were hoping for heading into the weekend, but the Badgers are on their way to a New Year’s Six bowl game to finish off a season much more impressive than the pundits anticipated.

UW will play Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, its first trip to a top-level bowl since a Rose Bowl appearance at the end of the 2012 season.

“You don’t earn that opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl unless you have a good year, and it’s our challenge to make sure we finish the year off right,” said UW coach Paul Chryst, whose team dropped to No. 8 in The Associated Press and coaches polls. “It’s exciting to play Western Michigan.”

Some Badgers fans would disagree with that statement after watching UW blow a 21-point lead to Penn State in Saturday’s Big Ten Conference Championship Game and ultimately losing, 38-31.

The Badgers (10-3) were in the College Football Playoff hunt until that game, and although Clemson’s win on Saturday night likely would have kept them out anyway, the Nittany Lions locked up a coveted Rose Bowl berth by winning the conference title.

While the Cotton Bowl is in the same New Year’s Six tier of games as the Rose Bowl, No. 12 Western Michigan (13-0) plays in the Mid-American Conference and doesn’t provide what most would consider a marquee matchup.

“There’s no doubt it was disappointing last night,” Chryst said. “We wanted to win.

“Western Michigan has had an unbelievable season and is really one of the stories of the year. That’ll grab our kids’ attention. It’ll be a challenge for us, but I’m glad it’s like that where our kids will be, they’ve got to prepare and do all we can to have a chance. It’ll be good for our team.”

Information on tickets and travel for the game can be found at UWBowlCentral.com.

Much of the Badgers’ disappointment came strictly from Saturday’s outcome and the way it slipped out of their grasp — not because of the missed opportunity for a playoff berth or Rose Bowl appearance. After Ryan Connelly’s defensive touchdown and another quick score after a fourth-down stop made the score 28-7 early in the second quarter, UW appeared primed to roll past Penn State before the Nittany Lions turned the tide.

“We didn’t care about the playoffs. We didn’t care about the Rose Bowl,” UW quarterback Bart Houston said. “The only thing that mattered was the next game. This one hurt so much because everybody was so focused on this game, rather than thinking big picture. We’re a one-week-at-a-time kind of team.”

They’ll now try to put just as much focus on the Cotton Bowl, where a victory over the Broncos would mark the Badgers’ first win in a top-tier bowl game since the 1999 season.

Despite the display in Indianapolis over the weekend, UW wants to prepare for Jan. 2 like it has for every other game this year.

“Our guys are too prideful to let this one just kill us,” Connelly said.

-- Copyright (c) 2016, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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