The final number for junior Joel Stave aren’t pretty – 14-for-27 for 121 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions – but breaking down the numbers a little farther eases some of the pain. Stave was 4-for-9 for 36 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, two coming on third down and one on fourth down on UW’s final drive of regulation.
He also completed passes to seven different receivers, spreading the ball around that opened up the offense for the running game.
“That’s what you play the game for,” said Stave. “It’s fun to go out and roll teams. But to be a big situation where they just scored, you have three minutes on the clock and you need a score or we lose the game, that’s what you play the game for. I had confidence in myself. I appreciate my team sticking with me. I did feel like I needed to redeem myself after the first three quarters and really do something to give us an opportunity to win.”
Two of Stave’s interceptions were forgivable – one on a third-and-long pass he tried to force to Jordan Fredrick that ended up behind his target - and one that was deflected off the hands of Alex Erickson. His third interception, by his own admission, can’t happen.
It’s a play that UW has run previously and a play – tight end Sam Arneson running down the slot - that usually is slow developing and fairly open, Floating a pass in Arneson’s direction on second down, Stave never looked off the safety, resulting in an easy interception at the 5-yard line.
“That was one where as I’m running off the field looking at the jumbotron watching the replay, there were things running through my head, should have done this, should have done this,” said Stave. “That was a disappointing one for me.”
Tanner McEvoy attempted one drop back pass that was horribly executed (he threw it five-yards deep into the sideline) but doesn’t appear in the box score because of a holding penalty. If McEvoy plays at quarterback next season, I’d be shocked.
Melvin Gordon heard Auburn tailback Cameron Artis-Payne basically say that Gordon’s gaudy 2014 numbers were because of the shoddy Big Ten defenses he ran against. So with a chip on his shoulder, Gordon ran all over another ranked SEC team.
A year after rushing for 146 yards against No.8 South Carolina and four months after putting 140 yards up against No.13 LSU, Gordon ran for 251 yards on 34 carries and scored three second-half touchdowns to help Wisconsin come back from four second-half deficits. The yards were a new school and Outback Bowl record, just more records Gordon etched his name on in a junior year for the ages.
Gordon finished with sixth games of at least 200 rushing yards and with 2,587 yards in 2014-15, the latter being the second-best mark in FBS history.
He broke two tackles on his 25-yard touchdown, unleashed a stiff arm that created enough separation to cover the last 15 yards of his 53-yard TD run and simply moved the pile on is 6-yard TD. Wow.
The heir to the UW running back throne also quietly made an impact. Carrying the ball three times in the first quarter, four in the second, three in the third and five in the fourth, Clement finished with 105 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry. He also scored the game’s first touchdown on a quick 7-yard out route, a route he was practicing with running back coach Thomas Brown two hours prior to kickoff.
The story of the game, however, was all about Gordon.
“This is the best way to have him go out, especially with me being his ‘second string sidekick,’ or whatever you want to call it,” said Clement. “I’ve watched him grow each game that he’s played and he has only gotten better as the season has gone on.”
Wisconsin’s longest catch was only 26 yards but the number of big intermediate catches by the Badgers, especially in the closing minutes, was huge, as any one drop could have changed the entire complexion of the game. Stave went to Arneson – his most reliable target – for his fourth-and-5 attempt and the senior delivered with a 7-yard completion. Arneson finished the game with 2 catches for 33 yards to cap a marvelous senior season.
“Extremely gratifying,” said Arneson. “That’s been the knock since I got here, the big game, the close game, the SEC game, the other (elite) conference opponent, the way we played I think showed some people what Wisconsin football is.”
Waiting in the wings at tight end if Troy Fumagalli, and the redshirt freshman again came up with a big 14-yard catch on third down to move the chains in overtime.
“I always told him I’m just trying to hold on to my spot before he (passed) me by,” said Arneson. “Troy is a great kid and has an incredible future ahead of him.”
Erickson finished with a team-high four catches for 38 yards, but the junior whiffed on a completion inside the 10-yard line when he saw an Auburn linebacker lining him up for a hit. The ball went off his hands and was interception, leaving points off the board.
Kenzel Doe had one catch for 10 yards (on third down) and Jordan Fredrick had one grab for nine, but both again delivered solid blocks down field to spring plays.
Not enough can be said about the work of Wisconsin’s offensive line, which was battered, bruised and still kept ticking like a finely made watch. The Badgers averaged 6.4 yards per play and 7.4 yards per rush, impressive considering starting center Dan Voltz broke his leg at the end of the first quarter after getting rolled from behind and Kyle Costigan could hardly move.
“Costigan could barely get out of the huddle,” said interim head coach Barry Alvarez.
And yet the Badgers still ran the ball down Auburn’s throats in the second half. After focusing on the pass in the first half, Wisconsin ran the ball on all six players of its opening drive of the second half, a 75-yard touchdown march that tied the game at 14.
“We told them the offensive line they had to take the game over in the second half,” Alvarez said. “I really liked what I saw that opening drive the second half. We ran the ball down the field.”
Gordon’s 53-yard touchdown run was one of the best blocked plays of the season. Rob Havenstein (right tackle) and Dallas Lewallen (center) sealed their players to the Auburn sideline, left tackle Tyler Marz released to the linebacker and Ray Ball (left guard) sealed his player to the UW sideline. Lead blocker Derek Watt picked up an edge rusher coming to the outside of Ball and the hobbled Costigan pancaked a linebacker wide open in the gap, allowing Gordon to make his moves and make two players miss.
“The respect I have for Kyle is just out of this world,” said Havenstein. “To play next to him for three years; I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else. He’s that type of player and that type of person.”
Wisconsin’s pass protection was also stellar in neutralizing the speed of Auburn and only giving up one sack, which came at the end of the second quarter.
Ball – who battled through a meniscus tear against Ohio State – impressed Alvarez with his tough-guy mentality and play much better against Auburn than he did against the Buckeyes, giving him a heavy dose of confidence heading into the spring.
Reliable tackles Marz and Havenstein fortified the edges to allow the jet sweeps to gain big yards and the interior of the line opened up some gaping holes. Kudos to Havenstein, who tied the program record for career games played and finally got the elusive bowl win.
The Badgers registered 31 first downs, the number two mark in program bowl history.
Playing without Konrad Zagzebski (ACL), Wisconsin rotated Jake Keefer, Warren Herring and Arthur Goldberg at nose tackle and utilized Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Herring at defensive end. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda also ran some 4-2-5 defense by putting outside linebackers at the defensive end position.
The end result was probably more than acceptable for Wisconsin’s defense considering the talent in Auburn’s offense, as the Tigers finished with 219 rushing yards and 216 passing yards, and spreading around the tackles.
“If you want to be a great team you’ve got to win bowl games,” said Herring. “There’s no better way to go out then in overtime against a great SEC team. It was an opportunity for us to show where we were as a team, show off our determination and our fight.”
That determination was evident in overtime, as UW’s defense – thanks in large part to the work up front – was flying around, flocking to the ball and making plays that set up the victory.
Giving up 258 yards and seeing Auburn score on three of its four scoring drives in the second half (excluding the end of game knee down), the Wisconsin defense started to sag on its heels. But when the chips were on the table, Wisconsin bowed up.
Going on defense second and knowing a touchdown would extend its bowl losing streak, the Badgers held Auburn to negative-3 yards in the extra session, stopping run plays, pass plays and trick plays.
“We covered everything,” said senior linebacker Derek Landisch, who finished with seven tackles. “I can honestly 100 percent say this, there wasn’t a play out there that we didn’t see in practice. Credit Coach Aranda, credit the coaching staff for staying focused. If they are staying here or going elsewhere, they just prepared for this game. That was so important to us.”
Schobert hesitated slightly on a pass rush on Marshall, which resulted in quarterback finding his tight end for a touchdown just before Schobert hit him on the blitz. The junior made up for it in overtime. He broke through the line of scrimmage to stop Artis-Payne for a two-yard loss.
On third down he stayed in his lane and kept containment when Auburn tried a throwback pass to Marshall. Schobert forced him out of bounds for a one-yard loss on third-and-long, finishing overtime with two of his game-high three TFLs.
Auburn went 4-for-12 on third down (33 percent), a season-low total.
“Since this is my last game,” said Alvarez, “I think it’s one of the greatest defensive efforts I have ever been a part of.”
Marcus Trotter ends a spectacular senior season with eight tackles and one tackle for loss. His leadership loss creates a void that UW will need to find a way to replace.
Wisconsin’s cornerbacks ended the season without an interception (which is mindboggling) but did a fair job against the most talented group of receivers the unit will likely ever face in college. Of Auburn’s 16 pass completions, only three went over 20 yards, and UW limited Sammie Coates – one of SEC’s best receivers – to only four catches for 24 yards.
There were some blips in the radar. Sojourn Shelton ended his tough year with his seven pass interference penalty, coming on fourth-and-11 at the UW 15. With a fresh set of downs, Auburn scored from two yards out to take a 31-28 lead.
Shelton was also involved in the big bust of the game for Wisconsin. In one-on-one coverage with Ricardo Louis, Shelton lost a step at the line of scrimmage and lost his safety help with true freshman Lubern Figaro got caught guessing, resulting in a 66-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
He also missed an interception off a deflection when Trotter appeared to strip him accidentally, a sign of how rough his season has been.
Wisconsin made the adjustments at halftime, however, as the Badgers only gave up 85 yards in the second half and overtime.
Michael Caputo finished with seven tackles, had UW’s lone sack and two pass breakups, including a leaping swat with his right hand that was high on both athleticism and degree of difficulty.
Peniel Jean – the lone Florida senior on the roster – finished with a team-high nine tackles, a tackle for loss, made a beautiful shoestring tackle on tailback Corey Grant to limit him to a 1-yard gain and hit hard all game. Kudos to him for resurrecting his career after it was going nowhere at cornerback.
McEvoy replaced Figaro after the coverage bust at safety for the most of the game and tackled well, finishing with five stops and preventing some big gains. With Jean graduating, McEvoy should be the person to slide into that spot.
Rafael Gaglianone has certainly fortified a weakness for Wisconsin’s special teams. After the Badgers ranked near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage the last two years, Gaglianone nailed two clutch kicks – a 29-yard try at the end of regulation and a 25-yard boot in overtime – and finished with the second highest field goal percentage (.864, 19-for-22) for a season in UW history.
“Our protection has been perfect,” said Gaglianone, who ended the year making 14 in row. “Perfect holds, perfect snaps all the time. It just makes it so easy for me. Walking into this program, it was a good opportunity all along.”
Drew Meyer’s junior season was disconcerting, as his punting average has decreased since he was an honorable mention selection his redshirt freshman season. In the Outback Bowl, Meyer’s three punts averaged 26.3 yards with a long of 32 with only one inside the 20. His first punt went only 24 yards, giving Auburn excellent field position at its own 42 that turned into seven points.
Doe ends an adventurous career as a return with one kickoff for 24 yards and one punt return for zero yards.
Seeing three of his six kickoff go for touchbacks, Andrew Endicott finished the season with 28 touchbacks, 19 more than he had a season ago. He also averaged over three yards more per kick, giving UW a tremendous advantage on special teams.
Calling his final game as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig put together a solid game plan. Wanting to throw the ball early to loosen up Auburn’s front before pounding the ball on the ground, the Badgers efficiently and effectively ran the ball down the Tigers’ throats in the second half.
As usual Aranda had his unit well prepared and didn’t have one play thrown at them that the Badgers didn’t see in bowl practices.
Alvarez promised to be more assertive this year compared to the 2012 Rose Bowl and he was, choosing to forego a 50-yard game-tying field goal and run a pass play on fourth-and-5. The result was a big first down and allowed UW to a) run more time off the clock and b) kick a more manageable field goal.
“It’s his call,” said Gaglianone, “and I’m glad he did it.”
In fact he went for it three times on fourth down and the Badgers converted on all of them. Cojones.