It was a fitting end to the 2008 football season, as Florida State returned two of UW's three fumbles for lengthy touchdowns in 42-13 Champs Sports Bowl blowout; a game where the Seminoles played turnover-free.
The loss marked a UW offense that had turned the ball over way too much (an average of 25.3 giveaways the last three years) and how UW's defense hadn't taken the ball away enough for its defense (averaging only 22 takeaways over the same time period).
It was a number that reflected poorly on the Badgers and the head coach, who had watched UW's turnover margin slowly drop from plus-13 in 2005 (Alvarez' last season) to minus-8 last season. It's the sole basis for the 2009 motto - ‘re-establishing Wisconsin football' – being established in the off season.
"That was one of our big goals this season," senior tight end Garrett Graham said about re-establishing UW dominance. "We needed to be a lot cleaner with the football and smarter with our decisions. We didn't always do that last year."
UW quarterbacks threw 11 interceptions this season, matching the total from the last two seasons, but the number of loose balls was dramatically cut down. Last season, UW lost 19 of its 30 fumbles, the highest totals since the 1988 season (47 fumbles, 24 lost).
The situation was ready to rear its ugly head through the first half of the season. Although a perfect 5-0, UW quarterback Scott Tolzien had been intercepted only three times, but the Badgers had coughed up 10 fumbles, seven of which were recovered by the opponents and one that was returned 88 yards for a touchdown, turning a sure UW victory over Minnesota into a nail biter.
So when Tolzien was intercepted twice against Ohio State and watched helplessly as the Buckeyes returned both picks for touchdowns, the Badgers needed to finish in the second half, making a strong running game even stronger, and improve an ailing pass defense.
"We needed to take pride in the individual job and it will all come together," senior Jae McFadden said. "This is a senior team and we needed to enforce that."
The pep talked work, as the Badgers went 4-1 in the final five games and qualified for the Champs Sports Bowl (7 p.m. on December 29) against Miami (9-3) by throwing only three interceptions and losing three fumbles down the stretch.
"Everyone was opened and fired up and really feeling good that they have a chance to put some input into what we were about to do for the second half of the season," McFadden said.
The other problem was a lack of discipline in stopping the run game. The Badgers allowed six of their final 10 opponents to gain over 100 team rushing yards, including 200-plus yards to Iowa and Cal Poly and three running backs to gain over 100 yards.
Not only did the Badgers again assert their dominance in the run game, leading the conference with 206.7 rushing yards per game, but Wisconsin ranked second in run defense, allowing 90.5 yards per contest, and didn't allow a single conference team to rush for over 100 yards against them.
"That was one of our biggest goals in the off season – getting back to Wisconsin football," said sophomore tackle J.J. Watt, as the Badgers have held nine straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards. "We really did that this year not just with our offense running the ball, but with our defensive line holding all Big Ten opponents to under 100 yards rushing. Shutting down such an explosive offenses really says a lot for our team."
While the front seven was stopping the run, the entire defense was finding ways to create turnovers and more opportunities for the offense. UW forced 16 turnovers in Big Ten play, converting 11 of those turnovers into 73 points, a number that doesn't include that UW forced fumbles at the end of the Minnesota and Purdue games that led to them running out the clock.
The production of the defense helped Wisconsin average 32.8 points per game, tops in the Big Ten and 21st in the country.
"We turn those turnovers into points and that's huge," senior Chris Maragos said, who was responsible for the game-clinching interception against Fresno State. "As a defense, it's really great when you have confidence in your offense. We know that they are going to go on long drives and that if we get them the ball, they are going to score."
But for the Badgers to truly re-establish Wisconsin football, they will need to figure out how to win again in the post season. Former head coach Barry Alvarez went 8-3 in bowl games, while head coach Bret Bielema is 1-2, watching a mistake-riddled UW win its last two bowl appearances.
A solid effort will be needed against the Hurricanes, who are one of just nine FBS teams that rank in the nation's Top 36 in both total offense and total defense. For the team that desires to finish games strong, the bowl game will be the ultimate statement as to how far UW has come in a year.
"I think we brought the physicality back to this university, this program and how we play, but the big thing is finishing," senior O'Brien Schofield said. "We want to end on a positive note and go out the right way."