Badgers 20, Hurricanes 14. Well, it finally happened. Brett Bielema was able to beat a ranked opponent this year. Congratulations to him. While the Champs Sports Bowl is certainly not the BCS bowl every team has dreams of at the beginning of the season, it is nonetheless a tremendous victory for Wisconsin. They had failed in their previous attempts to defeat teams ranked higher than them, and this victory should pay dividends next preseason in getting them seeded higher. It was also their 10th win of the season, which always looks much better than 9 wins.
I think by the end of the season the Badgers had figured out a working formula for their offense: run first, pass later. John Clay ran 121 yards on 22 carries. Montee Ball chipped in with another 61 on 15 carries. This meant there were 37 running plays for the two of them (not to mention 5 running plays without them), as opposed to just 26 passing attempts for Scott Tolzien. Clay also picked up two touchdowns, the only two scored by Wisconsin. By limiting Tolzien’s touches, the Badgers were able to eliminate the possibility of him making a critical mistake. It worked to a fair degree, as Tolzien only through one interception all game, and that was a ball batted at the line that went straight up in the air (more bad luck than a bad pass). When he WAS passing, Tolzien did all right. He put up 260 yards through the air, averaging a first down (10 yards) per reception. This means that the Badgers did a good enough job running the ball that any time they went to pass, the defense played soft out of fear of the run. Wisconsin used play-action several times, and every time they were able to break off big throws to the wide receivers or tight ends, more specifically Lance Kendricks (128 yards on 7 receptions) and Garrett Graham (77 yards on 6 receptions). This is a testament to John Clay’s running ability, that he was able to get the defense to bite on play-action just about every time they ran it.
Before I get to the defense, I want to give a quick shout out to the special teams unit. Philip Welch made all of his field goals and extra points, and Brad Nortman did an excellent job pinning Miami deep in their own territory just about every time Wisconsin had to punt. While I think they passed up some reasonable field goal opportunities late in the game, they instead forced Miami to eat up clock time having to move the ball down the field so much. This, combined with the long scoring drives of the Badgers, led to a time-of-possession difference of nearly 2-1 in Wisconsin’s favor (40 minutes to 20 minutes).
Defensively, the strength of this team all season has been its two defensive tackles, JJ Watt and O’Brien Schofield. The Champ Sports Bowl was no exception. They completely shut down the Miami running game and did a phenomenal job getting to quarterback Jacory Harris. They played punishing defense that took its toll on the Hurricanes quarterback, ultimately ending with a strip sack that gave Wisconsin the ball back deep in Miami territory. Watt and Schofield are two very strong defensive players, and I look forward to seeing what they can do next year, either with the Badgers or pro. They have great tackling ability and a fierce desire to get to the quarterback every time. If you hold the ball for just a minute too long, they will chew you up and spit you out.
So the Badgers season comes to a close on a high note. It was an absolute blast covering these games, mostly from the comforts of the Baseball Tavern in Kenmore Square, Boston. The team is losing several of its key players this offseason, so next year may be another “rebuilding” year for the Badgers. But another year of experience for Tolzien should help him transform from the role player he is to the leader he can be. And when that happens, watch out. Next year I hope to be covering these games again, possibly from Camp Randall (I applied to Wisconsin for grad school). So if you want to be a Badger, just come along with me!