TAMPA, Fla. - The University of Wisconsin senior class had won a pair of Big Ten championships and 38 football games entering the final game of their careers. But they felt they hadn’t won the big one, the close one or the meaningful one.
To put it bluntly, Wisconsin needed this one … and they got it.
Fighting back from four deficits, including two in the final eight minutes, No. 17 Wisconsin’s bowl losing streak finally ended with a thrilling 34-31 victory in overtime over No. 19 Auburn in front of 44,023 at the Outback Bowl.
“It’s such a relief, such a great feeling,” said senior Sam Arneson. “I’ve been here four years and this is our first bowl win. There’s a lot of emotion. It’s a cool feeling.”
Cool doesn’t begin to describe the mood on the field post-game and outside the locker room for Wisconsin (11-3), which first was left demoralized after a 59-0 drubbing in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State and then bewildered when Gary Andersen left the program four days later to become the head coach at Oregon State.
Instead of caving and packing it in, the seniors again turned to athletic director Barry Alvarez to steer the ship through potentially rocky waters.
“He’s been that one constant throughout this program,” said senior linebacker Derek Landisch. “Growing up in Wisconsin, it’s a dream come true to play for him. He preaches everything that’s right about Wisconsin football.”
The main Alvarez preaching point? Toughness. After changing the way the team conditioned, lifted weights and prepared, Wisconsin totaled 521 yards and ran for 400 of them behind a battered offensive line, one that saw center Dan Voltz break a bone in his left leg late in the first quarter and Kyle Costigan play on one healthy leg for most of the second half.
That still didn’t prevent tailback Melvin Gordon from finishing with 251 yards – a new Outback Bowl record – on 34 carries and three scores (all in the second half), or Alvarez from rolling the dice on fourth-and-five instead of kicking a 50-yard field goal. The reason? He wanted to win, because he didn’t know how much longer UW could hold up.
“We’re playing with a guard with a leg he’s dragging around for an entire half,” said Alvarez, who is now 9-4 in bowl games. “I didn’t know how much longer he’d go … I didn’t want to take a chance with a kick and go into overtime when we had a chance; if we got a first down we’d have a chance to win.”
The king of mental toughness this past season, quarterback Joel Stave, threw three interceptions but navigated through a Wisconsin game plan that called for him to throw the ball early to loosen up Auburn’s defensive front. It worked, as Gordon had 121 yards on nine third-quarter carries, but Stave’s seven-yard pass to Sam Arneson on fourth-and-five and two subsequent third-down completions were critical.
“Being able to win big games like that, and ultimately close games like that, to be able to finish some of these games where they are close … is exactly what we needed to do,” said Stave. “We took a step in the right direction.”
Wisconsin’s recent bowl history had been a collection of bad breaks and program missteps, including a batted down two-point conversion against TCU in the waning seconds; a Jared Abbrederis fumble that somehow didn’t roll out of bounds and time simply running out on Russell Wilson against Oregon; a late interception against Stanford in Alvarez’s previous return to bowl action; and the inability to convert short-yardage plays against South Carolina.
They’ve been ugly, they’ve been frustrating and they’ve created a stain on a proud program that UW needed to change.
“It was a big burden lifted off our shoulders,” said senior Warren Herring. “It’s something we took to heart. We’re very excited about that, as you can tell.”
It was obvious. When Daniel Carlson’s 45-yard field goal bounced off the right upright and to the turf after Auburn’s turn in overtime, the Wisconsin players shot off their sideline like they’d been fired out of a gun. Sprinting around with their helmets raised, players embraced each other, danced and released plenty of emotion.
“We had a streak that wasn’t in our favor,” said linebacker Vince Biegel, who jumped into the stands before running off the field. “To break that streak and get that monkey off our back is a great feeling.”
But like anything worthwhile, Wisconsin had to work for it. After Gordon’s third touchdown put Wisconsin up 28-24 with 7:58 remaining in the game, the Badgers’ defense couldn’t stop Auburn (8-5), which drove 71 yards in 10 plays, chewing up 5:03 on the clock, to go up 31-28 with 2:55 remaining.
Sticking with the ground game, Wisconsin ran into field goal range, inched closer thanks to Stave’s fourth-down pass and capped a 13-play, 64-yard drive with Rafael Gaglianone’s 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
With UW on offense first in overtime, Gaglianone kicked a 25-yard field goal, and Wisconsin’s defense – which had given up 138 yards in the fourth quarter – finally stood strong, holding the Tigers to negative-three yards. Had Auburn been a few yards closer, Carlson’s kick probably would have sneaked inside the upright.
“I asked them to buy in, follow my plan,” said Alvarez. “We’ve won a few bowl games, so follow it. They did.”
And because of that, a month’s worth of bizarreness and four years of postseason disappointment have finally been buried.
“We earned this,” said junior safety Michael Caputo. “We earned everything that happened this season…We were in a dogfight all season. I felt this game was a prime example of how our season went…and we came out on top.”