In a game widely predicted to go Auburn's way, the general consensus had been that the Badgers would need to trade scores in a shootout if they hoped to compete with the top-ranked offense in the SEC.
Instead it was the Wisconsin defense that established an early tone with two first quarter takeaways. The Badgers managed to maintain an aggressive gameplan for most of 60 minutes, declawing the Tigers potent attack.
"I don't think it was anything more than our guys took this as a personal challenge," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "It was no more than how people played when the ball was snapped. Every game we have the same preparation. There's a lot that goes into the month of a bowl game season, but I think the biggest thing that our kids did—doesn't matter if it's defensive line, linebackers or (defensive backs)—they wanted to take this as a challenge to come out and play a complete ballgame."
A vaunted Tiger ground game was held to just 99 yards—just the second time this season that Auburn failed to break the 100-yard mark and the first since the team's season-opening loss to Georgia Tech.
The Badgers held Auburn scoreless in the first half as the Tigers repeatedly attempted but struggled to establish the run. That made things quite difficult for quarterback Brandon Cox.
The sophomore struggled throughout the afternoon and was subject to frequent pressure from a UW front seven that played its most inspired football all season. The Badgers sacked Cox four times. Though he did not throw another interception after Levonne Rowan picked off his first pass, Cox never made the big play to get Auburn back in the game.
"(Bielema) wanted to get out and get after the quarterback," linebacker Mark Zalewski said. "He thought that he was kind of flustered early on, so we kept coming after him."
It was a group effort for a defense decimated by injuries all season. Bielema, who will now takeover the program as head coach (formally Jan. 30), had to deal with criticism all season long about his defense's abilities.
Under Barry Alvarez, Badger fans have grown accustomed to solid defense, something they got plenty of in Bielema's first year as coordinator last season. Yet, many of Wisconsin's victories this season came in high-scoring affairs with the help of a newfound passing attack and the incredible accomplishments of Brian Calhoun.
That made this win especially sweet for Bielema and his players. The word of the past month has been "preparation", and today the word resulting from that preparation in Orlando was "aggression". The linebacking corps swarmed the ball all day, making nine tackles for loss and finding seams in Auburn's offensive line with the blitz, which seemed to be dialed up more often than was typical this season.
"I think that a really aggressive style is what we need to be doing to be successful competing with an SEC team like Auburn who is very fast," redshirt freshman cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said.
The aggressiveness up front heaped a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the Wisconsin secondary—a unit that has rotated starters all season and failed to develop a rhythm or prevent big plays during the season. The Badgers ranked 98th in the country at stopping the pass, allowing 259.3 yards per game. UW's inconsistency, coupled with the Tigers' depth and experience in the receiving corps, looked like it might spell trouble for the Badgers. However, the team rose to the challenge.
The Badgers surrendered just three receptions of 15 yards or more in keeping the deep ball out of the hands of the Auburn receivers. It was Rowan and Ikegwuonu who got the starting nods at the corners, with Allen Langford filling in for the most part on nickel packages. Strong safety Joe Stellmacher led the team with nine tackles.
Despite a nine-yard touchdown pass over Ikegwuonu's head in the fourth quarter—when receiver Courtney Taylor used a little push in the back to gain separation—the secondary was able to keep Auburn from getting the big plays that might have made this a close game.
"I think we matched up very well," Ikegwuonu said. "I think we took the deep ball away. That's what they wanted to get."
As for the line, the Joe Thomas defensive experiment ended badly. The All-American offensive tackle injured his right knee after five defensive snaps and was out for the remainder of the game.
Yet, the Wisconsin defensive line managed to hold its own against a very large Auburn front. Nick Hayden and Joe Monty both recorded sacks and Jason Chapman forced the fumble that gave the Badgers their second takeaway on Auburn's second possession.
Mark Zalewski led the up-tempo linebackers unit with eight tackles and two for loss, including an eight-yard sack on the Tigers' final drive of the first half. That play stifled what seemed to be the beginning of a successful drive for Auburn. In the scrum that ensued, star offensive tackle Troy Reddick was ejected from the game after taking a swipe at Hayden.
Linebacker Dontez Sanders and defensive end Mike Newkirk also added big hits behind the line of scrimmage for Wisconsin. Aiding them was true freshman sam linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who made two tackles off the bench.
"As he prepared more and more you can begin to see things catching on," Bielema said. "I didn't have him for those first four weeks (when Casillas was playing safety). He's a guy that I think everyday gets better and you saw it out there today."
All around, there were solid contributions from everyone in carrying out the gameplan. For only the second time all season the Badgers held their opponent to less than 300 total yards—the other coming in their 65-0 shutout of Temple. It was the lowest number of points the team had surrendered since Sept. 17 when it held North Carolina to five in Chapel Hill. Playing against Auburn, which boasted one of the top offense's the Badgers faced all season, those numbers say a lot. Considering outsiders' expectations, they speak volumes.
"I think it just comes down to how we prepared," Zalewski said. "Ever since we came back after the Hawaii game everyone was really into it, and everybody really wanted to learn everything about (Auburn's) offense. We just came out really tough and everybody was ready to play."
Ikegwuonu was ready to say that it was the best performance by the defense all year, which could not have been more timely. As Bielema suggested afterwards, the performance answered some doubts about the program's ability to "finish" over the past two years late in the season.
"I think our defense, we're just going to take this as a stepping stone to the future," Ikegwuonu said. "It was a great win and a great performance by the defense considering we had been up and down this year. Coach told us we hadn't played our best game yet and I agreed with him. And I think today we really showed what kind of defense we are."
Better late than never.