Preview: The Last Puzzle Piece

Under head coach Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin football established the tradition of winning competitive bowl games. With a motivated senior class determined to re-establish Wisconsin football after a down season, the Badgers have one more task on their hands to get UW back on track - win a bowl game.

MADISON - Making his first bowl trip as a college athlete, Scott Tolzien had a good seat to watch a textbook UW bowl victory.

Despite the Badgers not playing their best game, Tolzien saw John Stocco return from a two-game absence to throw for two touchdowns and the Badgers defense limit the high-octane Razorbacks to only two scores in a 17-14 Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas in 2007.

"That's what Wisconsin football is – a gritty program," Tolzien recalled. "It's about being built on toughness, taking it one play at a time and playing strong, discipline football. There isn't any secret, you just have to execute your stuff. Our execution that game was top notch."

No.24 Wisconsin hopes to win its first post-season game since that Capital One Bowl and end two years of bowl-game frustrations in the process when they take on No.14 Miami this Tuesday in the Champs Sports Bowl.

After winning a school-record 12th game over Arkansas, the postseason hasn't been kind to UW and head coach Bret Bielema. Sloppy play against Tennessee cost UW in a 21-17 loss in the 2008 Outback Bowl and too many mistakes led to an embarrassing 41-13 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl last year.

Two years, two times not executing and playing a four-quarter game, two sour tastes among Badger Nation.

"When I grew up, the one thing you always remember about Wisconsin was the way they finished its season by being excellent in bowl games," senior Chris Maragos said. "Going along with our team goal of re-establishing Wisconsin football was finishing out the season right. We need to focus on ourselves and try to keep preparing as good as we can so come game day, we can play as good as we can."

With that thought process, it's no surprise UW (9-3) is following an identical practice schedule to the one it used in each of its two bye weeks. The Badgers practiced three times after the Hawaii game before getting several days off. Once arriving in Florida, the Badgers have followed their standard work week in the days leading up to the bowl game.

After its first bye, UW routed Purdue, 37-0, after its first bye and crushed Hawaii, 51-10, after the second bye.

"I think it gives us a chance to take a step back and get back to basics," said Tolzien of the schedule. "In the regular season when you have games back-to-back weeks, you are really chasing to try and get the next game plan in that sometimes you lose those basic fundamentals. The bye week gives you a chance to go back to what you do best – starting with the basics.

"We've taken advantage of it so far during the season. Now we have to take advantage of it for the bowl game."

The only problem is the Badgers' opponent is much more potent than the two teams UW beat by a combined score of 88-10. Moreover, the Badgers are 0-2 against ranked opponents; Miami (9-3) went 3-1 against the top 25, all coming in the first four weeks of the season.

The Hurricanes' main weapon is sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who orchestrates a pro-style offense that averages 31.7 points per game, has three backs averaging at least 5.0 yards per carry; and 10 players having at least 11 receptions. Harris doesn't force passes, has an offensive line that gives up an average of only 2.5 sacks per game and has thrown 23 touchdown passes.

"He's athletic, he's gifted, he's a good player," said Maragos. "He is who he is; he's his own player. He's going to do what he does and that's make good decisions."

The key with Harris is how healthy is his injured thumb on his right throwing hand. Harris injured the thumb in a 33-24 loss at North Carolina where Miami outgained the Tar Heels, 435-329, but Harris threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

It's a game similar to Wisconsin's loss at Ohio State, when Tolizen was victimized by two pick sixes. Also like Wisconsin rebounding down the stretch, Miami rebounded from the UNC loss to beat Duke and South Florida by a combined 39 points to close out the season. Harris spoke Sunday in Orlando that his thumb his fine and doesn't anticipate it to be an issue.

Even if Harris is slowed, the Hurricanes' defense will make it challenging on UW and sophomore running back John Clay, who finished the season with 265 carries, 1,365 yards and 16 touchdowns. The front seven of Miami has limited opponents to 96 rushing yards per game over the last seven game and sophomore Brandon Harris, a first-team Atlantic Coast Conference pick, might be the best cornerback in the country, leading the ACC in passes broken up (14) and passes defended (16).

"I just see, overall, a very good defense from top to bottom," Tolzien said. "They have real good athletes that fly around and make a lot of plays. It's going to be a great challenge for us to do what we do best. In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best and this is a good football team. This is another challenge for us and a way for us to finish our season the right way."

The top goal on Wisconsin's list this season was to re-establish Wisconsin football – playing fundamentally sound football with fewer penalties, fewer mistakes and winning close football games. The small, yet focal senior class has been the driving force in putting the Badgers back on track. But to truly get back to playing UW football, the Badgers need to find a way to hoist a trophy when the clock strikes zero Tuesday.

"Win or lose, we've put Wisconsin football in a position to have success in the future and to be a dominant program in the Big Ten and nationally," Maragos said. "But, this would be a huge springboard for what we want to do and this would really truly fall into place of what Wisconsin football is – winning bowl games and having 10-win seasons."

No.22/24 Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. No.14/14 Miami (9-3, 5-3 ACC)

Date/Time - Tuesday, December 29 at 7 p.m. CT

Stadium – Citrus Bowl Stadium (65,438/Natural Grass)

Television - ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rose)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Westwood One Radio (Chuck Cooperstien and Eddie George)

Series – Miami leads 2-1

Last Meeting - Miami won, 51-3, on Sept. 9, 1989 in Madison

Wisconsin Notes:

The Badgers will be making their eighth straight bowl appearance, the second-longest active streak in the Big Ten and tied for the 13th-longest streak in the country.

After playing 13 of its first 15 bowl games outside the state of Florida, UW will be playing its sixth-straight bowl game in the Sunshine State. This will be the fourth time in the last five years Badgers have played at Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando.

The Badgers are almost perfectly balanced on offense, gaining 2,510 yards through the air (209.2 per game) and 2,480 yards on the ground (206.7 per game). UW has averaged at least 200.0 yards passing and rushing for a season just twice in school history (1993 and 2007). Wisconsin is one of just six teams in the country to average at least 200.0 yards on the ground and through the air (TCU, Florida, Stanford, Fresno State and Auburn are the others). Those six teams have a combined record of 56-17 (.767).

Wisconsin ranks eighth in the country in rush defense, allowing just 90.5 yards per game on the ground. They have not allowed a team to run for 100 yards since giving up 214 to Wofford, which averaged 275.8 rushing yards per game. That streak of nine straight games holding a team to less than 100 yards is the longest in the country this season and the longest in school history. FBS teams are averaging just 79.3 yards per game on the ground vs. UW this season.

UW faced seven teams this season that qualified for bowls, going 4-3 against those teams.

Miami Notes:

Four Hurricanes earned first team All-ACC honors in defensive tackle Allen Bailey, offensive tackle Jason Fox, cornerback Brandon Harris and kicker Matt Bosher. Linebackers Colin McCarthy and Darryl Sharpton - along with Bosher as a punter - earned second team honors. Safety Randy Phillips, defensive tackle Joe Joseph and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin all were honorable mention All-ACC selections.

The ‘Canes rank 25th in total defense (321.25) and 36th in total offense (412.50) this season under first-year coordinators Mark Whipple (offense) and John Lovett (defense).

UM's 13 opponents this season had a combined regular season record of 94-63 (.598) in 2009, with 10 of the 13 at or above .500. The ‘Canes had the 16th toughest regular season schedule in the country according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings.

Since taking over the helm of the UM football program in 2007, the Hurricanes have improved every year under head coach Randy Shannon. After the ‘Canes went 9-3 in 2005 and 7-6 in 2006 in Larry Coker's final two seasons at Miami, the ‘Canes finished the 2007 with a 5-7 mark in Shannon's first year.

With a win over Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, the ‘Canes will have won five games against non-conference opponents for the first time since joining the ACC.

Prediction

Standing quietly in the corner of the weight room after UW's lost to Iowa, sophomore Nick Toon stated blatantly:

"I think we can play with any team in the country. We have the ability to win all the games that are on our schedule."

While the Badgers aren't going to get their chance against a Florida or an Alabama, Wisconsin's next game on the schedule is against a football program that is just as good as they are and will serve as a good litmus test to how good this team was in 2009. The Badgers won nine games, but only had two ranked teams on their schedule and thus, doubts of how good UW really was and is naturally creep in.

The Badgers have worked hard to bury the ghosts of last season, which makes this year's Champs game a perfect ending to UW's season, especially since its 29-point loss to Florida State, another ACC school, was in many ways the origin for the renewed focus among the Badgers this season.

A victory over Miami, a 3.5 point favorite, would be a perfect way to wrap up the season and send the seniors, a group that led the charge, out with a big-time bowl victory. After the sour taste left in the Badgers' mouth for the last two years, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, two is better than one, which is why I'll pick the 'UW' by four over the 'U'.

Wisconsin 28, Miami 24

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 10-2

Against the Spread: 8-4


Badger Nation Top Stories