Simply put, it worked.
In a game of redemption so literal the Badgers were placed in Orlando for the second year in a row, UW took down the No. 14 Miami Hurricanes 20-14 to improve to 10-3 and secure a final spot somewhere in the top 20 rankings. Sick of hearing questions about bouncing back from 2008 for most of the year, UW head coach Bret Bielema happily answered the final query he should hear for quite some time about the 2008 campaign.
"To get to 10 wins from where we were a year ago, what people thought of us, I think we looked within ourselves first, then we just kind of moved ourselves forward," Bielema said.
From the first play of the game, it didn't seem quite that rosy. With the Badgers pumped for the last game of the season, the Hurricanes used UW's aggressiveness against them, employing a reverse on the kickoff that ultimately went for 84 yards and crested with Miami running back Graig Cooper punching in a 16-yard touchdown run.
Still, the Wisconsin defense held firm on the next possession, forcing a three-and-out and the Badger offense struck quickly evening the game up with a deep pass to junior tight end Lance Kendricks — a recurring theme for the game — and two runs from game MVP John Clay inside the five yard line.
Steady behind center all season, junior quarterback Scott Tolzien never doubted how his team would respond to the early hole.
"We scrapped and we had some things that didn't go our way in this game and we were able to overcome adversity," Tolzien said.
With Clay adding another touchdown midway through the second quarter — for the game Clay totaled 121 yards for a 5.5 average — the Badgers seized a seven point lead and started to impose their will on 'faster' Miami team.
Playing prototypical Wisconsin ball, the Badgers rushed 42 total times and passed merely 26, with many drop backs coming off playaction.
"Our offensive line, we got big guys up front," Clay said. "We know that. They punish the guys up front, the D-line up front. Coming to me off the backfield, 230 plus (insert laughter from Bielema about Clay's proclaimed weight) that's just wearing down the defense. We see. That's what we do. Wisconsin football, we just run the ball. Third, fourth quarter, you could see them sucking air."
With the way the Badger defense harassed ballyhooed quarterback Jacory Harris, it wouldn't have been a surprise to see the Miami signal caller 'sucking air' in the fourth quarter as well.
To politely put it, the sophomore quarterback was ineffective. His deep balls were too deep, his short passes off the mark and his scrambles went side to side instead of north-south.
Led by defensive ends O'Brien Schofield (two sacks and forced fumble) and J.J. Watt (critical fourth quarter sack and fumble recovery), the Wisconsin pass rush brought down Harris five times in the backfield and knocked him down at least double that.
Though he avoided the interception bug that has plagued him all season, Harris finished with a lowly 188 yards on 16 of 29 passing and only looked effective on the late desperation drive in the fourth quarter where he notched his only touchdown of the day.
"Every time I saw [Harris] limping it made me want to get back there that much more," Schofield said. "They don't really have a backup, so we were just trying to get him out of the game."
Hanging on to win despite Miami recovering an onside kick, the Badgers did what they had held back on for four straight months — they celebrated. Bielema was splashed with ice water, hugs were given all around and as center John Moffitt put it, "I am going to celebrate until the day I start back in school."
In a game built around redemption — whether the players would admit it or not — 2008 was finally put to bed.
"Our seniors, I've said it a million times, but it would do injustice to our senior captains," Bielema said of the bowl win. "The main reason we wanted to win the football game today was for each other."