"Overall I could tell you we had a successful season," offensive coordinator Brian White said following the Badgers' 24-21 loss to Georgia in the Outback Bowl Saturday.
"Any time you win nine games you are doing something right as a coaching staff," White said. "We won nine games. We're proud of that. We're not pleased with the way we finished the season but that's what it is."
Standing at 9-0 with a No. 4 national ranking in hand Wisconsin had every reason to dream big. With a 9-3 year in the books, the Badgers have grounds for disappointment—and pride.
Certainly Wisconsin could have accomplished more this year. Opportunities to play in the Rose Bowl, or the national championship game, do not come along every year. On the other hand, 2004 was Wisconsin best season since the 1999 team finished 10-2 and won the Rose Bowl.
For Wisconsin's 24 seniors, the 2005 Outback Bowl was their first opportunity to play in a New Year's Day bowl game.
"We didn't finish up strong," senior free safety Jim Leonhard said. "It's going to be hard for us to be remembered that way with three losses but we all know what we've been through and all the memories that we had. We had a great season."
Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez felt his team overachieved this year.
"You always want to win but I think you have to be realistic in the same respect," Alvarez said. "I do not consider it a disappointing year. Sometimes you get frustrated because you think you can always play better."
"I think a lot of people think that we overachieved but in the locker room all the guys thought that we could be a pretty good [team]," junior tight end Owen Daniels said. "From an outside point of view we maybe overachieved. Inside the locker room we are a tight bunch of guys and we thought we had a bunch of playmakers."
The thrills in 2004 were many:
- Wisconsin's defense spent most of the season at or near the top in of the nation.
- Senior defensive end Erasmus James returned from a career-threatening injury to torment opposing quarterbacks on his way to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
- Senior cornerback Scott Starks, the Badgers' team MVP, had a memorable senior campaign, including his game-winning fumble return for a touchdown at Purdue.
- There was the return of Paul Bunyan's Axe and nifty performances from senior tailback Anthony Davis (when healthy).
- There was Leonhard, tying Wisconsin's career interception record (21) and setting a new Big Ten career punt return yardage record (1,347).
- Leonhard, Starks, James, guard Dan Buenning and defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne were named first-team All-Big Ten.
- Of course, there was the season-opening nine-game winning streak during which the phrase "1-0" would not quit reverberating.
When the first Bowl Championship Standings were released Oct. 18, Wisconsin was No. 6 in the nation and debate ensued whether these Badgers would be playing in the Rose Bowl or for the national championship in the Orange Bowl.
Starks, however, offered a warning that week that proved torturously prophetic.
"Sixth in the BCS?," Starks said. "We could be 27th in the nation at the end of the year if we don't finish out the season strong, finish out this game strong."
The Badgers did win that week, dominating Northwestern to move to 8-0. They crushed Minnesota to take back the axe two weeks later, following their bye week. Standing at 9-0, a perfect season coming closer and closer into focus, the bottom dropped out.
Wisconsin was embarrassed at Michigan State, 49-14, on Nov. 13. The undefeated dream gone, the Badgers still had a chance to go to the Rose Bowl, but received a 30-7 beating at Iowa the following week. The Badgers' season wrapped up at Raymond James Stadium here Saturday, with a tough 24-21 loss to Georgia.
Wisconsin's offense, which teetered on the brink of disaster all season long, fell into disarray during the losing streak. The Badgers averaged 270.7 yards per game and scored just four offensive touchdowns in their final three contests. All told Wisconsin averaged 328.1 yards per game and scored 27 offensive touchdowns, the program's weakest production since the 1992 team averaged 324.5 yards per game and scored 19 offensive touchdowns.
Defense covered up UW's offensive woes for most of the season but that unit also struggled during the 0-3 finish. After allowing 246.9 yards per game and only eight touchdowns in the first nine games, the Badgers' vaunted defense yielded 424.3 yards per game and 12 touchdowns in the final three.
"We played a in Jan. 1 bowl game and played a top five team when it's all said and done," Alvarez said. "Georgia's going to be a top five team."
The Bulldogs do indeed have a shot at finishing in the top five in the nation. They entered Saturday's game No. 7 in the coaches' poll and No. 8 in the Associated Press. Wisconsin, No. 16 in both polls, likely will not fall as far as No. 27 when the final rankings are announced this week. Starks' October warning, however, came painfully close to realty.