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Badgers football: Takeaways could be difficult for Wisconsin in Cotton Bowl

December 31, 2016

ARLINGTON, Texas — Western Michigan isn’t just good at protecting the football. The Broncos are turning the ball over at a historically low rate heading into Monday’s Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.

With just seven turnovers this year, Western Michigan (13-0) has an opportunity to finish the season with fewer giveaways than any FBS team since 2004 if the University of Wisconsin defense comes up empty in Monday’s game.

“They don’t make mistakes,” UW cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “Their quarterback is really smart with his decision-making. Their running backs don’t fumble the ball. Those guys just don’t make mistakes.’’

Western Michigan’s first turnover of the season came in its seventh game, a 41-0 win over Akron on Oct. 15, and the Broncos have yet to lose the turnover battle this season.

Fourth-year starting quarterback Zach Terrell has thrown just three interceptions in 349 pass attempts, an average of one pick for every 116.3 passes, and only five teams in the country have lost fewer fumbles than Western Michigan’s four.

The Broncos have adopted coach P.J. Fleck’s “the ball is the program” mentality since turning it over 26 times in his first season in 2013, when Western Michigan finished 1-11.

“They are like great white sharks with blood in the water when we talk about the football,” Fleck said. “They feed off that. They thrive off that. That is the No. 1 statistic. If you want to turn the program around and you want to get to this level, just take care of the football. It’s that simple.”

The Badgers’ defense, however, gives the ball back to its offense about as well as anyone. Only seven teams have more takeaways this season than UW’s 27, and the Badgers’ 21 interceptions are tied for third in the nation.

UW (10-3) has forced 13 turnovers in its past four games and hasn’t lost the turnover battle since its 17-9 win at Iowa on Oct. 22.

“We call it being ball aware — understanding where the ball is and taking some opportunities and some risks and some chances,” UW outside linebacker Vince Biegel said.

“There’s also a variability of luck involved with turnovers. ... Our defense is ball aware. We’ve been that all season, and we’re going to have to be again this week and create some turnovers, some short fields for our offense. That has been a big key to our success as a football team this year.”

Something will have to give Monday, and it likely will play a major part in the game’s outcome. Either the Badgers’ ball-hawking skills slow down in their final game of the season or Western Michigan uncharacteristically turns the ball over multiple times.

UW players said the Badgers have put a big emphasis on creating turnovers and putting Terrell in difficult situations in this game, but defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said it’s hard to differentiate this week from any other because that’s always a major goal for UW.

The opportunities might just be limited this time around, and the Badgers hope to take advantage when they present themselves.

“You always want to take the ball away,’’ Wilcox said. “You’re always trying to do that. They’ve been very, very good, obviously. They don’t turn the ball over much. They’ve been very efficient the entire year. It would be huge again to create some takeaways. We know it’s going to be a challenge.”

First-round grade

UW left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said he received a first-round draft grade from the NFL Advisory Board.

Ramcyzk, a redshirt junior, has the option to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL a year early.

The first-round grade makes it more likely Ramczyk will indeed skip his final year with the Badgers, but he might also need to undergo hip surgery after Monday’s Cotton Bowl. That would prevent him from working out for teams to help solidify that spot in the first round.

“You get a first-round grade, it’s tough to stay,” Ramczyk said. “But I’ve got this hip surgery, so that’s another obstacle I’m facing. It’s a tough decision.”

Ramczyk said he’ll make a final decision on his future after the Cotton Bowl.